Moving out of academia: rethink and reshape your skills

Guest blogger Victoria Schulman explains how to assess your skillsets as part of her career exploration series.


For those transitioning from academia to non-academic jobs, the fear of not getting hired due to a lack of skills or experience can be very real. However, scientists have many transferrable skills that are highly sought after by various companies.

For example, postdocs are essentially mini project managers – they design and implement experiments, manage students and collaborators, set timelines and schedules, keep projects within budget, organize data in presentable formats, and routinely meet deadlines.

Although we may not view these mundane tasks as ‘skills’ per se, in the broader picture, they are skills. Specifically, they are project management skills, and numerous companies higher project managers every day.

Thus, to be successful applicants in non-academic job searches, we must step back, critically analyze our skillsets, and identify how our skills could be applied in different scenarios.

Recognizing the suitable skills

For example, those interested in technology transfer should recognize that the back-and-forth process between companies and patent examiners is very similar to the peer review process necessary for publishing articles.

Highlighting your abilities to accept criticism, reassess your document, improve it, and successfully resubmit it demonstrates that you do indeed have experience – and success – in this type of banter. If worded strategically, you would be a prime candidate for the tech transfer company to interview and possibly hire.

For your skills to truly be ‘transferrable’, you must highlight for them exactly how your background gives you experience in the specific areas they are looking for.

The key is describing these skills in profession-matched language so that your potential future employer ‘gets it’ because if you phrase your skills in the most basic and simplistic manner, the deeper meaning is lost.

For your skills to truly be ‘transferrable’, you must highlight for them exactly how your background gives you experience in the specific areas they are looking for.

Thus, as scientists conducting a non-academic career search, we need to rethink and reshape our skills such that employers see the value in hiring someone with transferrable skills who may not have directly relevant experience.

It’s about learning to sell yourself using the right marketing tools for a given audience, but don’t let the thought of selling yourself overwhelm you. Whether you realize it or not, you’re already a salesman – as a researcher, you regularly sell your data to various audiences to convince them that your conclusions are the most logical explanations.

Just apply those same abilities to your resume and cover letter to sell the argument that you would be a great fit for the job based on the data you provide, i.e., the skills you highlight, which you have reshaped to demonstrate that you possess the needed attributes listed on the job posting.


Written Communication Skills:

Basic Skill: You’ve published a few papers – one in a top journal – and an invited review.

Reshaped Skill: Excellent written communication skills with the ability to cater the language to the target audience; published four primary research articles in top-tier journals, for experts in the field and authored a solicited review of the literature for non-experts.

Oral Communication Skills:

Fact: You’ve given talks at conferences for which your abstract was selected from a large submission pool, and you’ve won a presentation award at an on-campus function.

Reshaped Skill: Excellent oral communication skills; gave award-winning presentations at local symposia and was selected from an applicant pool of 2,500+ to present at a/n inter/national conference.

An alternative example of (written/oral) communication skills:

Fact: You enacted change in a program.

Reshaped Skill: Excellent communication skills; successfully pitched amendments for the graduate program to the Executive Curriculum Board at [Institution] in effect today.

Project Management Skills:

Fact: You manage your research project, and you have collaborators and students working with you.

Reshaped Skill: Successfully managed a highly collaborative inter/national team of scientists, clinicians, statisticians, and students to identify genes mutated in specific cancers; pivotal findings will be/are published in top-tier journals.

Leadership Skills:

Fact: You were the President of a University group.

Reshaped Skill: Served as the President of the Postdoctoral Association at [Institution]; implemented numerous workshops to promote career development, increased membership by 27%, and secured funding for future events and programs.

Multitasking Skills:

Fact: You simultaneously manage your research project(s), those who work with you, your presentations, writing assignments, meetings, and deadlines.

Reshaped Skill: Excellent ability to multitask; simultaneously manage 2-3 different research projects, while also mentoring students, writing papers and grants, preparing presentations, attending conferences, and meeting strict deadlines.

Step back, critically analyze your skillset, and find ways to re-envision and sell yourself.

These examples highlight how we can rethink our skills to demonstrate that, although we may not have direct experience in a given field, we certainly possess the skills necessary to adapt to a new setting quickly.

There are many more ways to reshape your basic skills into transferrable skills that many companies are seeking in job candidates, so step back, critically analyze your skillset, and find ways to re-envision and sell yourself – and your skills – in a non-academic setting.

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