8 ways your science skills can sell

pubished on Global Health Now 9/17 &18

8 Ways Your Science Skills Can Sell
Sep 16, 2015 12:07:00 PM EDT
By Judy Keen

A science education provides rigorous training, helping students master many complex cutting-edge technologies and techniques. Students also gain a deep appreciation for details and accepting open critiques about their work. And yet, when students and postdocs finally leave the lab and attempt to enter any career other than academic research, they often fail to truly sell themselves and market the skills that they spent years honing.

As scientists, we are so focused on the techniques we know and papers we publish that we don’t take a step back to appreciate some skills that are inherent to the discipline. As a result, resumes look flat—filled with long lists of technical skills, papers, presentations and degrees, but leaving out some of the actual skills that employers seek. This means that the painstakingly crafted and resumes of many scientists don’t even make it through the first level of screening. This is especially true of applications that resemble a biosketch, forcing potential employers to work hard to understand the applicant’s skill sets and talents.

It took me many years and many iterations of my resume to figure out how to sell my science degree. Most of those outside research fields have no idea what a scientist actually does—and therefore cannot envision the benefits of hiring them. Many times, scientists don’t provide insight into what they do because they don’t recognize all of the skills they’ve picked up along the way, or know how to sell them to employers.

1. Scientists have skills to sell—and it’s not about the techniques or the experiments accomplished.

Lab-based scientists focus on the laundry list of techniques that they can perform. Many cutting edge techniques developed or perfected by students and postdocs are impressive, and it is good to be on the leading edge of technology. Still, details of the new next generation sequencer that you used are lost on many. Unless you are applying for a specific lab job where you will be at the bench or managing a research program, few will look at or understand the list of assays that can be done.

The bigger skill is always incorporating, developing, troubleshooting, and improving the latest technology into projects. Forward-looking companies really want to know that you are always looking at the latest, and you know about the benefits and pitfalls, and you’ll keep them current.

2. You understand process and how to systemically answer questions to solve problems

Not everyone employs the scientific process or knows how to logically and systematically identify and answer a question. Many accept anecdote as fact and will point to a specific case as a generalizable reality. You understand how to look at the bigger picture and put a specific result into context of the larger reality. It is hard to counter anecdotal evidence at times, because of the emotional tie, but that’s what you are trained to do.

Problem solving is a great skill. You are well suited to design big projects, ask the right questions, and steer the process to answer them.

3. You can be a skeptic: You know that not every study is valid or even good

Not all studies are backed by solid evidence or well designed. You have been well trained to critically examine results, understanding that a single study is not definitive by itself, and interpreting findings in the context of the larger literature—a valuable skill. You analyze data and can assess if the study is well done or needs additional work.

4. You understand that not every endpoint has the same meaning

Endpoints aren’t all the same. RNA isn’t protein. Genomic changes don’t necessarily cause phenotypic changes. Progression free survival is not the same as overall survival. You know this and understand the nuances of what it means. You can communicate this to those outside the field and provide expertise in interpreting the studies.

Critical analysis of studies and accurate, well-developed communication skills allows you to discriminate the subtleties of research and provide insight into the relevance of the work. This is critically important to those who are not in the field and are trying to understand what the science means to them on a personal or individual level.

5. You set up timelines and milestones to complete a project
Research requires that you plan your projects and outline anticipated outcomes. Time and money are limited, and grant writing forces you to create project plans and establish milestones that keep you on task. This type of program management is key to running any project—lab-based or otherwise. Being able to forecast the timeline, set critical milestones, and develop a budget are all necessary skills no matter the business. You are also taught how to analyze the project and determine if it’s worth continuing or not—skills that apply outside the lab, too. Terminating a project can be key to success—and key to not losing money.

6. You understand the use of appropriate controls and how limitations need to be figured into conclusions
You design experiments and know how to analyze them. When you are looking at any problem, you know how to set up a good experiment with the proper comparison arms. Changing one variable at a time, or at least having the proper controls to compare, is the only way to make a company more profitable.

7. Your projects lead to additional work (money)
Bringing in the next project is essential. You are trained to develop long-term projects that lead to additional projects and work. This means that you can project next steps, and seek the necessary resources. Having the skill to forecast work and to keep ahead of the curve will make you successful in any business.

8. Overseeing students, you gained experience managing staff
If you have the opportunity to manage a student or postdoc, take it. It will give you the skills necessary to supervise people in the future. You need to plan their work and to make sure they can accomplish it in a timely manner.

Graduate school teaches you to think differently to be successful. While on a day-to-day basis you are focused on experiments and writing papers, graduate school offers many opportunities to develop leadership and management skills. Take a step back and evaluate your skills from a higher level. You do this for your science, now do it for your career.

Judy Keen, PhD

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