Transferable skills for industry

Convince hiring managers of your value by highlighting your experience working in teams, meeting deadlines, communicating clearly and using technology
Courtney Chandler
Jan. 1, 2021

We’re starting a new year, and for some of you that means changing careers. Moving into biotechnology or pharmaceutical sciences requires thinking about how to market yourself in that space. During interviews with people already working in industry, I’ve heard again and again how graduate training prepares you for a career in the private sector. As a student, postdoc or independent researcher, you’ve spent years refining and developing your technical skill set and transferable skills that you can bring with you to your future job or career.

But what transferable and/or so-called “soft skills” should you highlight when crafting your résumé, filling out job applications and preparing for interviews?

This week, I cover some of the skills that you are likely to possess and can use to demonstrate your value to a prospective industry employer. The list below is by no means exhaustive and may not apply to every industry job out there, but it will provide at least a starting point for you.

Leadership and interpersonal skills

Industry jobs rely on teamwork. The team-style structure may be vastly different than what you're used to. But your success within your team will be critical to your success within the company. That’s why it’s important to show that you have solid interpersonal skills. Employers want to make sure they’re hiring someone who will be a productive member of whatever team they’re on.

In most lab settings, you’ve likely already worked in a team, either within your lab or in collaboration with other researchers. Emphasizing these collaborations or any other team-based projects can show you’re already prepared to work on an industry team.

You can go beyond this to highlight leadership experiences you’ve had. Were you involved in student government? Did you lead journal club or other extracurricular activities? Were you the head of a collaborative project? Use these experiences to show the employer that your leadership ability will help make you a valuable long-term investment as an employee.

Time and project management

This is a big one in industry. Projects typically happen on a more rapid timeline than those in academia, and deadlines are critical. During any research career (including during graduate school) you’ve undoubtedly had to meet project deadlines. Highlighting your efficiency or ability to stick to a timeline is a good way to show you can succeed in a deadline-driven industry setting.

Along the same lines, project management is important. You’ll likely be handling multiple projects simultaneously, and ensuing each of these is moving in the right direction (and on the right timeline) is necessary. The projects and deadlines themselves will probably each be different, so juggling multiple separate tasks is an important skill to highlight. The good news is that you’ve probably already had to do this in your career — most graduate students and researchers have multiple projects at once. Try to highlight how you managed each project. If you can point to defined outcomes for each of them, even better. This will show employers your ability to take on and successfully manage multiple tasks at once.

Organization is key to successfully managing your time and projects. While it can be harder to pinpoint specific examples of your organizational skills on a résumé, you can make sure to talk about it in your application cover letter or interview.

Written and oral communication

Industry jobs often involve communication with nonscientists and/or researchers outside your own specialty. Therefore, being able to effectively and clearly communicate is essential.

If you’re going into regulatory affairs, you will have to clearly communicate with governmental regulatory officials. If you’re becoming a medical science liaison, you will need to converse with physicians or other medical professionals about the products or technologies you’re representing. And if you’re moving into research and development, you will need to present your data to supervisors and shareholders or pitch project ideas in a concise and convincing manner.

While the exact nature of communication will vary based upon the position, it’s a skill that is universally needed.

Showing that you’re able to communicate your research to nonexperts is one way to demonstrate your aptitude. This can be done through informal channels (such as mentoring or writing blog posts) or through formal experiences (such as public lectures or articles for a lay audience). Successful grant-writing experience also can show that you’re able to pitch and justify your scientific ideas, which can be useful in research and development or project-management positions. (Note that peer-reviewed scientific articles won’t cut it. In that case, you’re writing for an audience with a similar technical background.)

If you don’t have these types of experiences, you’ve at least spoken about your research to others, such as your research committee and seminar audiences. Use these experiences to your advantage!

Digital literacy

More and more jobs require moderate to complex computer knowledge, and industry jobs are no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the need for employees who can competently and creatively navigate their work in the digital landscape. Although the specific computer skills you may need will vary greatly based on the specific job and company, showing your ability to work in the digital age is important.

Try to highlight your experience and proficiency with any specific programs you think you would be using in your new job. For example, if you know you’ll be doing research in a specific field, talk about any software you’re already familiar with. Anything that can separate you from other applicants in terms of digital capabilities will be beneficial. 

Discipline-specific knowledge

If you’re staying within your field of research, demonstrate your expertise within the field. This is possibly most applicable for research and development jobs that have projects in an area similar to your previous research. In that case, showing you’re knowledgeable about the field as a whole (not just about your specific area of expertise!) will be of value.

Even if you’re not pursuing research positions, your discipline-specific knowledge can be beneficial. For example, if you’re working with shareholders, your ability to assess and digest the science behind the research or technology is an asset. Likewise, if you’re working in regulatory affairs, your knowledge of the scientific field can help you navigate the regulatory space and respond to specific inquires that may pop up.

If you’re looking at positions that are just not related to your research experience, don’t worry – you’ve already shown that you have an analytic mind that can be leveraged in any position.

Like I said before, this list is not exhaustive, and there are many additional skills you likely possess that could help make you an attractive industry candidate. Take a look at what you’ve done, and start to think how you could frame it for industry positions.

Stay tuned for more insider insight into industry positions, and happy new year!

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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