Transferring and Translating Your Skills

Stephanie Spohn, a fifth year student in the NGP, writes:

I recently attended the NatureJobs Career Expo in Boston to explore some options for when I finish my PhD. In later posts, I hope to expand upon a few of the many opportunities they presented, but for today’s post I’d like to focus on great advice I got from one of the conference speakers.

According to her conference speaker biography, Nina Dudnik has the makings of a world-renowned scientist. She studied at Brown University, trained at Harvard, has been a Fulbright scholar, an Echoing Green fellow, and a TED fellow. With such credentials, she could literally do almost anything; and she did. Nina founded and is CEO of a nonprofit organization called Seeding Labs. The general goal of Seeding Labs is to give scientists in developing countries the tools they need in order to conduct research and train students. They accomplish this by offering programs that aid in instrument access, grant writing fellowships, and an ambassador program.

You may wonder why someone with such a great scientific pedigree is a CEO of a nonprofit, when top scientists traditionally pursue the coveted academic position. In today’s current scientific climate, we are producing many more PhDs than we have tenure-track faculty positions. What was once the epitome of success (a grant and a tenured position at a good university) is now for many a pipe dream. Yes, there are a few jobs like this left for the many students graduating from doctoral studies and young PhDs finishing postdoctoral fellowships, but not nearly enough. I probably don’t even need to mention what the funding climate is like… Grants are few and far between for many hardworking scientists. This is where Nina’s story really contributes to the future of scientific careers. It turns out, there are LOTS of ways you can use your PhD aside from being a tenure-track faculty member.

In today’s job market, many new PhDs will have to find ways to communicate how their training and skills are obviously transferable to other types of work. The following are Nina’s “5 skills that serve you outside the lab”, a list of things you probably have down pat if you’re in science, and “4 more skills you can get”, a list of skills that you may not have yet, but you can certainly seek out.

5 Skills that serve you outside the lab:

  1. How to educate yourself: You have spent so many years essentially teaching yourself all sorts of information! You know how to find credible sources that can explain new concepts to you in a meaningful way. You may not know how a 501c3 nonprofit works right now, but you are capable of seeking that information out. You may not know how to read a business plan, but you know if you pick up a few business books, you can learn the language. Take advantage of your ability to learn, this is probably one of the most important transferable skills you have.
  2. How to ask a good question (and how to design a way to answer it): You know how to ask a solvable question. You know how to interpret data and how to ask the next question. You know how to design an experiment to answer your question. Don’t take this for granted. You’ve invested a lot of time into learning how to ask questions you can test. We know it’s not easy to answer some questions, like “what solves world hunger?” We do know that we can tackle pieces of that question though. “Is crop A or B best suited to the arid climate in location Z?” or “what food storage technique available in location y is best able to reduce food loss?”
  3. How to experiment: You’re intellectually flexible. You’re good at trying again. No one in science has ever planned and executed the perfect, world shaking, paradigm-shifting experiment once and only once. “We can use this climate-controlled room to test if plant A or plant B produces more fruit.” However, you know that experiments, even well planned ones, may require tweaks once you’ve tried it.
  4. How to develop a protocol: You know that having a plan doesn’t mean everything is set in stone. Your experiment didn’t work. It hasn’t worked the last 2 months. Do you keep trying the exact same thing? Follow the same protocol? I would hope that you would start troubleshooting. Protocols are lovely, but it’s best to think of them as dynamic documents. They guide use, they’re excellent first tries, and with good knowledge and having tried it a few times, we might see room for improvements. “Oh, we didn’t factor in that in arid location Z there’s a brief monsoon period. Let’s adjust our experimental paradigms to account for this.” So you may add a mock monsoon to your experiment and try again.
  5. How to make decisions using data: You may think this is second nature, but it’s important to know how to make decisions using data. You may see a visually appealing graph with many stars of significance (p<0.00001?!?!), but what do the data actually say? How did they measure the change? Is it a meaningful measurement? Is this the best way to represent the data? Going back to our mock experiment, it would be misleading to show only the amount of fruit per plant if the plant survival differed between the two groups. Plant B might have 10 fruits per plant, but only 10% survived the climate, whereas plant A might have had 6 fruits per plant, but 90% survived the climate. If you were to represent the data as fruit/plant, people would obviously pick plant B. If you were to represent the survival rates, people would probably pick plant A. Because you know how data can be manipulated, you’re able to look at the fine print.

4 Skills you can get:

  1. Speaking publicly about your work: It’s daunting. Most grad students dread giving a seminar. Take advantage of the opportunities to talk about your work. Hopefully, you’re passionate about what you do and you know why it’s important that it be studied. Not everyone will be as passionate as you, but you should be able to convince them that yours is a meaningful and worthwhile project.
  2. Managing other people: It’s tough. I’m sure everyone has had a boss or a supervisor that wasn’t the best. Managing people is a skill you can learn and develop. If you have the opportunity, take on an undergraduate student, lead a project, or organize a committee. Begin working on how to delegate responsibilities and how to manage group time.
  3. Writing a grant: It’s a lot of work. Many early PhDs have never had to write a full grant before they attempt to submit their very first one. Ask your PI if you can help out in the process or write the sections that are relevant to your thesis work. Apply for pre-doctoral grants. Take a grant writing class or workshop if you can.
  4. Networking: It’s talking to people. It is also more than just rubbing elbows at the department holiday party. Go to professional meetings. Join professional networks in your field. Attend seminars and posters beyond your own bubble of research. Meeting people who are tangentially related to your work can spark some really great conversations!

Now that you’ve seen your PhD skills are more than just “can extract RNA, make cDNA and run PCR,” you’ll be better able to translate your years in a lab into marketable and sought-after traits for your job search.

Finally, please check out Nina’s organization, Seeding Labs.


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