Unicorns, Skill-Free Ph.D.s, and Other Mythical Creatures

unicorn“But I have no skills!”

I have heard this refrain more often than any other throughout my 12 years as a career counselor for graduate students and postdoctoral trainees. The truth is that grad students and postdocs build myriad skills throughout their research programs that are attractive to employers in any sector.
Following are a few myths worth debunking:

Myth: “I have no useful skills.”
REALITY: Graduate students and postdocs develop many skills over the course of their programs that are valued by employers.


Myth: “I’m only trained to do one job.”
REALITY: Graduate programs and postdoctoral work require you to develop a broad set of skills that qualify you for a wide range of career paths.


Myth: “My experience is so limited, what skills could I possibly possess?”
REALITY: More than you know!


The trick, then, is learning how to identify and present your transferable skills to potential employers. Take a few moments and go through this exercise, designed to help you tease out skills you have been or are currently using as part of your program.
  1. List each activity associated with your graduate work, current research project, volunteer work, or other activities (e.g. teaching, conducting research, training undergraduates, etc.)
  2. List the tasks associated with each activity (e.g. modeling a particular technique, reviewing and evaluating student work, keeping accurate notes, etc.)
  3. List the skills you have used in each task (e.g. ability to translate complex problems to a variety of audiences, ability to present data clearly, ability to plan and execute several projects at once, etc.)

Look at that! You have amassed skills that are valuable to all employers through your work as a junior scientist. Be sure to list the skills you identify from the exercise above in your job applications. For example, consider the following excerpt from a graduate student’s resume, developed with the assistance of my career services colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania using the exercise above:
Summary of Qualifications

  • Practiced and effective writer, editor, and public speaker
  • Able to present complex material in a clear, concise, and persuasive manner to a range to audiences
  • Full engagement with projects from inception to completion
  • Proven ability to become an expert in new subjects and techniques quickly
  • Work productively both independently and in teams
  • Effectively manage time and multiple projects, set priorities, and meet deadlines
  • Focus on defining problems and researching solutions
  • Effective synthesis of details and broader vision
  • Manage, train, and evaluate personnel regularly

Would you hire the person above? I know I would!  So take heart…though you may have days of self-doubt, rest assured that much like the Easter Bunny, there is no such thing as a Skill-Free Ph.D.

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