If you are looking to succeed in a STEM career - whether that is research based or not - an extensive list of technical skills is not what you need. Of course, they will help you do your job, but they are not necessarily going to help you get your job. For that, you need transferable skills. Transferable skills are going to give you credibility in the industry much more so than technical ones. It was the same for me. While my PhD helps me do my job now in science communication, it was all the skills I learnt from the opportunities I took around my PhD that got me the job.
So, as a means to tempt you to start exploring outside your PhD to help you become the best individual you can be when looking for your next STEM job, I wanted to share 9 skills that I learnt during my PhD that weren’t in the lab and how they can help you in both research and non-research STEM careers.
1. Writing & editing
Writing is a major component of a research career. Whether you are writing publications, theses, grants or abstracts, knowing how to write well and clearly and concisely communicate your message is going to make you much more successful. But there are so many other forms of writing that gaining more experience in will help you develop skills that can help your academic writing and research too. You can write blogs, press releases, copy for websites or public talk blurbs just to name a few. But each will help you to write for different audiences, and also keep an eye on the big picture of your research. Trying out different writing mediums also helps you to define your writing style too.
2. Digital marketing
During my PhD, I did a digital marketing internship. It gave me so many skills that helped me get my job now including all the tips and tricks on using social media, analysing that usage and forming strategies to improve further. My aim was to recruit 16-17 year olds students to a vaccine clinical trial through social media, so it was still research related, but allowed me to stretch my creative wings and gain invaluable experience in areas the lab was never going to. These skills are also crucial to being able to market yourself as a scientist and your research.
3. Graphic design
Through various projects, I had to create eye-capturing posters, flyers, social media posts and imagery that was going to clearly share the event or information that I needed to. Not only did it help me with all my extra curricular projects and side hustles, but I was able to make much more engaging figures for my thesis which made explaining my hypotheses so much easier during my viva.
Being able to stand up in front of a crowd was something I never thought I would be able to do. Especially without shaking from nerves, and even more so without notes. But from pushing myself outside of my comfort zone doing events like Soapbox Science and public science talks, I managed to do that. Presenting is something that definitely gets easier with practice, so while it may be daunting, keep putting yourself out there and you will get more confident. More confidence is only going to help when doing presentations of your research, but also in all other aspects of your career. I also had opportunities to present in front of a camera, which is a completely different skill, but helped even more when I just had to stand there and talk at an audience too, but also communicating your research in person too.
5. Video editing
Another of the opportunities I jumped at outside the lab was Pint of Science, which pushed me to develop some video editing skills. Now you might not think that this would have any use in a research career, but more and more journals are accepting video abstracts with papers, and for some types of publications describing new methods, you have to record a video of how you do it. Not all institutes have a department that can record and edit it for you, so learning how to do it yourself can save you a lot of money. Having videos to share of your research will give your latest findings more impact too.
I have been lucky enough to secure many opportunities for work outside of the day job and the lab, but when I first started out searching for them, I wasn’t as successful. The ability to pitch my ideas for projects to potential collaborators and employers has refined over time and from learning from every failed attempt, which means I have secured more and more things I want to work on and develop. But it is not just about projects and work either, it is also about being able to pitch yourself and even the importance of your research for funding opportunities but also in the job hunt too. You have to know how to big up yourself and your passions even though it feels alien to a lot of us.
7. Project management
Doing a PhD teaches you how to manage your time but, most of the time, you are focused on just one project. Working on passion projects outside, or even inside, of the lab, allows you to develop project management skills and building it from an idea to the final output - a stage you also will never reach in a research career, because there are always more questions to ask. Project management teaches you not only how to divide your time between different tasks but also how to create project aims, work towards them, evaluate how they are doing and refining that to reach your goal. All aspects that will come in handy in the lab too.
8. Event planning
I have had the pleasure of organising a range of science communication and engagement events during my PhD that gave me a lot of event planning experience. With each event, I was able to learn from mistakes and make it easier the next time around. No matter what career you end up following there will always be events you can get involved with organising no matter how big or small. My advice to you is to get involved with the event planning in whatever role you feel most comfortable with because it will give you skills over other people. Plus it is the best feeling seeing all your planning come together and to see people enjoying your event and taking something new away.
We are all familiar with the phrase “it is not what you know, but who you know”. And to be completely honest with you, it could not be more true. All of these opportunities I have got are from knowing the right people, who have introduced me to even more people and allowed me to build up a portfolio of skills and experience that I would never have gotten without those connections. Having a network is essential for your research career too - knowing who has the expertise you need could lead to fruitful collaborations, or putting yourself out there could mean you get nominated for awards which can further your career even more. Knowing how to network is so important for any career so go get chatting and put yourself out there.
These are just some of the skills I learnt. Others are learning so many others like entrepreneurship, teaching skills and mentoring to name a few. You can learn all of these skills and more in conjunction with your PhD too. I am a huge advocate for doing things alongside your PhD and getting out of your PhD bubble to explore other career options and take advantage of opportunities and training that will guide your career and development personally and professionally.
Your PhD is to train you as a researcher, so make sure you walk into graduation with more skills than just those you can learn in the lab. Because you never know where it will take you and what doors it will open.