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088: 15 Transferable Skills PhDs Can Use In Any Career

But I have no skills! At least no skills employers would be interested in!

Melanie Sinche
Melanie Sinche, Director of Education, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine

As a career counselor, Melanie Sinche heard grad students and postdocs voice this concern nearly every day.  She looked at these talented scholars and saw the ability to think critically, analyze data, and solve problems. To her eye, these were transferable skills very much in demand outside the research lab.  Why couldn’t the students see it?

“I felt frustrated by that comment, and motivated to conduct a research study around skill development. I would argue that scientific training, by its very nature, lends itself to the development of LOTS of skills.”

Data Wins Arguments

Sinche developed a survey for early PhDs who had entered the workforce, to find out which skills they needed to do their current jobs, and how well their graduate training had prepared them.  Over 8,000 responded.

“It’s important for PhDs to recognize and have the confidence to express the skills that they’ve developed through their training,” Sinche says.

Here are the 15 skills, ranked by how well prepared the PhDs felt after their graduate training (Most Prepared to Least):

  1. Discipline specific knowledge
  2. Ability to gather and interpret information
  3. Ability to analyze data
  4. Written communication skills
  5. Oral communication skills
  6. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  7. Ability to learn quickly
  8. Creativity/innovative thinking
  9. Ability to manage a project
  10. Ability to set a vision and goals
  11. Time management
  12. Ability to work on a team
  13. Ability to work with people outside the organization
  14. Ability to manage others
  15. Career planning and awareness

The last four items in that list exhibited a skill gap for the respondents – they didn’t feel the PhD program had adequately prepared them for their work.  It’s an opportunity for improvements in graduate training, and students should seek additional help.

For the other eleven skills, graduate training was helpful, making PhDs especially competitive in roles where data analysis, learning quickly,  and communication are key.

Transferrable skill importance for employment by career track
Fig 2. Transferrable skill importance for employment by career track

And one more piece of good news from the study – PhDs appear to be pretty happy with their work!

When asked about job satisfaction, an impressive 80% of respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.  This was true both for those in research intensive careers (e.g. faculty, industry) and those in non-research intensive careers (e.g. teaching, science writing)

“I was so encouraged by what I found.  There is life after the PhD – life after the posdoc!” Sinche concluded.

You can read the entire paper at this link:

An evidence-based evaluation of transferrable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs

Or read her book:

Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science

Hazy Shade

This week, we also share a story about an assault on the hallowed tradition of anonymous peer review.  After a legal fracas between Cross Fit Inc. and The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, a judge has ordered that the reviewers of a Cross Fit exercise study be unmasked.

We discuss the history of anonymous peer review, and why the current legal action is so unusual.

And we mellow out with the Purple Haze Lager from Abita Brewing Company in New Orleans.  Hey, it’s Mardi Gras, someone throw us some beads!

087: How Do I Choose a PhD Program?

Some decisions in life are simple (“Yes, I want cheese on that burger!”) and some are difficult (“Do I want to spend the rest of my life with this person?”).

On that spectrum, choosing a University graduate program sits closer to marriage than it does to your lunch options.

First, grad school takes a long time – usually 4-6 years – and it sets you rather firmly in a career path that can be challenging to change afterward. It’s a life-decision.

Second, once you choose, you’re committing to a series of events and impacts that will be out of your control. You don’t get a “do-over” when the lab you wanted to join moves away or a postdoc picks up the project you learned about during your interview.

Take a cohort of students at any research university in the country, and you’ll find some that graduate with three first-author papers in just four years.  You’ll find others who never make it to the degree, either due to conflicts with their advisors, projects that don’t work out, or personal issues stemming from the stress of graduate studies.

So we know the stakes are high, but how, exactly, are you supposed to choose a PhD program?

 Make the Choice

This week on the show, we answer listener emails.  Mikaela wants to know what factors to consider when choosing a University and degree program, and Katie shares her specific conundrum: going with an offer she has vs. waiting for something better.

We lay out some general guidelines that will help any student-to-be.

1. Fascinating Research

It goes without saying that you should find a program with interesting research topics, but many students make a critical mistake in their focus.  They find one faculty member – one research lab – that sounds absolutely amazing and choose the degree program in the hopes of working in that lab.

Then, after moving, enrolling, and starting classes, they learn the PI has moved away or the lab is full and can’t accept new students.  Now they’re stuck in a program and forced to settle for something else.

Imagine spending the next five years of your life doing research you don’t care about!

Instead, look for programs with a variety of interesting topics.  This is obviously a deeply personal measure, but the goal is to find a variety of labs that satisfy your interests.  Make sure there are three to five research topics you could invest in, and you’ll be ready with Plan B, C, and D when Plan A falls through.

2. Love the Place

We’ve already mentioned you’ll be living in a university town for a few years, and you’ll spend plenty of time outside the lab.  Make sure you like your new home town.

This includes concerns like climate, but also the subtle character of that particular city. Is it bike-able? Is it near the beach? Does it have excellent restaurants? Can you stay close to family?

You want to enjoy the location, but make sure you experience it before you pass judgement.  All too often, students miss a great opportunity to step out of their comfort zones because they’re convinced they “never want to live in the city” or “can’t imagine moving to the East coast.”

Apply everywhere, and use the interview to explore new places.  You may just fall in love.

3. Professional Development

Most universities offer quality classes and cutting edge research, but not all programs are created equal when it comes to professional development.  There are still departments that consider a faculty position the only viable outcome of PhD training.  Others are strapped for resources and don’t offer additional help on career exploration or skill training.

Instead, look for a program that recognizes the diversity of PhD careers, and fosters your development in your chosen path.

Ask about active student groups, journal clubs, writing workshops, industry events, and PhD internships. If you know you’d like to pursue teaching when you graduate, you’re better off asking about opportunities to lecture before you enroll and find out that they discourage time outside of the lab.

For more ideas and considerations, tune into this episode, where we also discuss funding, family issues, the value of prestige, and more!

Tide Pod Challenged

This week, we explain the science behind the decidedly un-scientific “Tide Pod Challenge.”  Bottom line, don’t do it.

We also sample two parallel IPAs that are uniquely hopped.  It’s the Bright Double IPA from Treehouse Brewing in Massachusetts.  One version contains Citra hops, the other has Simcoe and Amarillo!

Yes you read that right – double-double IPAs this week! Wahoo!

New Year's Eve Fireworks

086: Five Resolutions for Happier, Healthier Scientists

Turning over the last page of the calendar seems to naturally invite some reflection on the previous 365 days. When you look back at 2017, what went well? And what do you wish you could change in the coming year?

This week, we take the opportunity to reflect back much farther – to our days in graduate and postdoctoral training!  With years of hindsight, we offer advice and perspective to the scientists we were, and devise some resolutions you can adopt in your scientific training.

Grad School Resolutions

 1.  Remember that training is temporary

When you’re ‘on the inside,’ graduate training can seem like an endless tunnel – the light at the end just a distant pin-prick.  For many, the daily stress of lab life closes in and we begin to feel trapped and hopeless.  This year, pause to consider that your training is just a brief step in your scientific career, and that people do finish! We promise!

2. Be mindful of your unique skills and motivations

Many students wait to think about a suitable career until they have a degree in their hands and a PI’s foot on their backside.  We recommend taking stock of your natural motivation and skill patterns early AND often.

It can be as simple as reflecting at the end of the day or on a Friday afternoon.  What did you accomplish this week? Which activities left you feeling energized?  Which left you drained? When did you lose track of time because you were engrossed in the task? Jot each item in a notebook or on a post-it and save them.

After a few months, you’ll have a detailed list of skills and activities you like to use and those you’d like to avoid.  These patterns can persist over a lifetime, so spend some time examining the notes and identifying the common themes.  That way, when you’re reading job postings, you’ll know exactly which positions fit your personality.

3. Push beyond your comfort zone

Starting a graduate program often means moving to a new town, meeting hundreds of new people, and dropping the support networks you enjoyed in college. That makes many introverted science-types turn further inward as we try to avoid the stress of new situations.

But remember that many of the people you meet feel exactly the same way.  Push yourself to engage, and you’ll be rewarded with new friends and colleagues that will last a lifetime.  Graduate training is full of never-to-be-repeated opportunities if you’re willing to step up and take them.

4. Make science fun again #MSFA

Don’t forget that you chose a career in science because science is amazing.  Maybe it fascinated you as a child, but we quickly lose that child-like curiosity the moment Figure 4 of our paper is due.

Every once in awhile, it’s okay to let loose and try an experiment because you think it’s fun, or you just can’t predict how it will turn out. This will not only stoke your love of science, it may lead to your next line of inquiry.

5. Find emotional support before you think you need it

Graduate training may be one of the most stressful periods of your life.  That’s not unusual. But too many of us try to ‘power through’ on our own.  Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and worse are the rewards.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Your mental health is as vitally important as your physical health.  If eating right and going to the gym are admirable, then so are finding a counselor or mental health professional to help you on this journey.  As we look back over our own graduate training, we wish we had found this support sooner.

So that’s it – five resolutions for a happier, healthier, sciencier you.  Leave a comment below to let us know YOUR New Year’s Resolutions, or the advice you wish you’d gotten as a grad student or postdoc.

Shock Lobster

Science in the News gets metaphysical this week, with a report that Switzerland recently banned the boiling of live lobsters.  We reveal the science, and speculation, of nociception in crustaceans and how it impacts your surf ‘n turf.

Well, at least the ‘surf’ part.

UPDATE: We quoted The Lobster Institute’s guide to cooking lobster in this episode.  They write:

The nervous system of a lobster is very primitive; in fact it is most similar to the nervous system of an insect. If one compares the diagram of a lobster’s nervous system to that of a grasshopper, the similarities are apparent. (See diagram below.) Neither insects nor lobsters have brains. For an organism to perceive pain it must have a complex nervous system. Neurophysiologists tell us that lobsters, like insects, do not process pain.

If you can’t trust the Lobster Institute, who can you trust?

Listeners pointed out that insects DO in fact have brains, thank-you-very-much.  In fact, you can see detailed images of a fruit fly’s brain right here.  This leaves us questioning the scientific basis for the Lobster Institute’s other claims, and questioning the nature of reality in general. #FakeNews

We also sample the Elevated IPA from La Cumbre Brewing in Albuquerque, NM.  Yes, you read that right, IPAs ARE BACK, BABY!

And finally, this great quote from Peter Medawar about the beautiful, inspiring diversity of scientists and their passions for learning:

There is no such thing as a Scientific Mind. Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics. What sort of mind or temperament can all these people be supposed to have in common? Obligative scientists must be very rare, and most people who are in fact scientists could easily have been something else instead.

“Hypothesis and Imagination” (Times Literary Supplement, 25 Oct 1963)

Happy 2018 Friends, and Thanks for Listening!

085: Scientists in the Newsroom – The AAAS Mass Media Fellowship feat. Rebekah Corlew

Pick up any newspaper and you’ll find an article summarizing the ‘latest research’ on the health benefits of chocolate, a new treatment for Alzheimers, or the long-term risks of screen time for your toddler.

As a scientist, you probably groan before you reach the end of the title: the claims are extreme, the statistics are dubious, and often, the information a reader should know is buried below the fold.

If you’d like to see science communication reach new levels of accuracy and relevance, it may be time to step away from your lab bench and pick up a pen.


reviewing grad school application

084: The 4 Keys to an Effective Grad School Application

In every episode of Hello PhD, we explore science training and life in the lab.  But for every scientist, that saga begins with a grad school application.

Whether you’re ready to apply today, or would like to apply to a graduate program ‘some day,’ we share a few tips and tricks that will make the application process simpler and more effective.