Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings
When you were studying for your degree, did your mentor or principal investigator (PI) ever happen to mention to you: “Good news! Not only are you developing technical skills in science and engineering, but you are also honing vital and transferrable skills in other realms, too!” No? I didn’t think so.
As a maths major, I certainly didn’t hear that from my advisor. In fact, I was led to believe that the only skills I had were tied to maths and the only job and career I was qualified for had to have the word “mathematics” in the title – as in, mathematician, maths professor, maths teacher, and so forth.
What a silly idea.
Your degree may say “chemistry”, “physics” or “pharmacotoxicology”, but hidden below the surface of your disciplinary expertise is a truckload of highly vital, attractive, invaluable, and diverse skills. These skills fan out across multiple dimensions and encompass much more than your scientific knowhow. In fact, these skills are highly coveted by many more sectors and ecosystems of which you and your PI might not have been aware. They include hard business skills and “soft” or interpersonal skills, such as communications, negotiations, conflict resolution, marketing, and leadership.
Because our advisors typically have not spent time outside of academia, they often do not realise that they, too, have these skills. But more importantly, they don’t think to inform their proteges that they possess these abilities and that the proteges can and should specifically articulate that they have them when looking for jobs and planning out their career paths.
Let’s take a look at the origin story of these skills. From studying science or engineering and, in particular, pursuing it at the graduate level and beyond, you have organically gained certain critical problem-solving skills. You have been bestowed these super powers through the process of conducting scientific research, in which you have to identify a problem that is not possibly known to exist and identify a solution from nothing. You are creating knowledge and/or developing an innovation. This is not something to take lightly, as this serves as the foundation for your entire brand (your promise of value) to employers because this is what employers desire – they need Creators and Explorers, who can solve problems that at first glance seem impossible. Scientists and engineers are trained to think in the direction of the impossible, to create something from nothing, to find and explore and measure realms that are unseen and unknown.
In your pursuit of the unidentified and unfamiliar, you have developed certain attributes that serve you well in your day-to-day super hero business of STEM. For example, you:
- Are adaptive, adaptable and flexible
- Take a critical thinking and analysis approach
- Are very self-disciplined
- Have excellent computing skills
- Can solve a problem from the ground up
- Are both holistic and detail-oriented
- Understand how the physical world works
- Have extensive project management and teamwork experience (after all, your teams are often large-scale, diverse and across continents and cultures)
- Have networking experience, from finding and working with collaborators
You also have a considerable amount of business skills. I am sure your advisor never hinted at this aspect of your glory either, partly because they probably didn’t realise themselves that they have and use hard business skills on a regular basis every day in their research. For example, did you know that you and your mentor have marketing experience? When you pen a grant proposal, you are essentially writing part of a marketing campaign. You are suggesting to the agency or organisation that they invest in you and your research and you outline why this will be a good investment and how the financier will obtain a return on their investment. That is Marketing 101: explain to the customer why they should buy your product. In this case, the product is your research and the impact you will have, and the customer is the funding agency.
There are plenty of other hard business skills that you probably gained from engaging in STEM, such as:
- Project Management
- Human Resources and Training
- Procurement and Inventory
- Risk Management
- Customer Service
- Sales and Marketing
- Public and Media Relations
- Event Planning
- Grant Writing
- Vendor Relations
- Supply Chain Management
- Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Safety Protocols
- Quality Assurance
As you talk with your advisor and others within academia, it is relevant to note that these skills are probably being described using a different vocabulary. I noticed this myself when I was working for a university and looking to get a job beyond the academy. On my resume, I described the problems I had solved in terms of students, i.e., what I had done to advance students’ goals and recruit more students to the institution. I wasn’t getting any interviews. And then, thanks to a career counsellor, I changed one word on my resume and suddenly I got many interviews. What did I do? I simply swapped out the word “student” for the word “customer”, because if you think about it, what are students to a university? They are the customers of academia – they exchange money (their tuition) for a product and service (their degree and the education that comes with it). Once I communicated that I spoke the language of industry, and articulated my skills using their vocabulary, they were more inclined to interview (and hire!) me.
So how do you start identifying your own set of skills? Use a tool I have created, called the Skill Inventory Matrix.
This is a self-assessment tool that you can utilise to not only recognise the skills you have acquired, but also to analyse and determine what opportunities are good for you to explore and pursue given your goals, interests and skills. Before you begin to complete it, know this: this is a private document. You won’t ever need to show this to anyone. It is a personal tool designed to help you articulate your true value which you can use to populate your resume or CV, cover letters, introductory emails, profiles on LinkedIn and other social media sites, and any other self-marketing document and communique, throughout your career. So be truthful, thoughtful and thorough as you endeavour to fill it out, because it will provide you with extremely powerful information about your skills and value that will arm you to make the right career choices for you and only you.
It is also a living document: the more experiences you have, the more projects you complete, the more jobs or assignments or gigs you pursue, the more information you can glean about yourself. So keep this tool handy throughout your entire career so that as you have accomplishments you can add to it to be able to more methodically and authentically tell your own value story.
The Skill Inventory Matrix
In the first column, list out any experience that literally gave you experience, which could be a paid job or research assistantship, or a volunteer position, or a short-term class project.
Then in the next columns, write down what different types of skills you gained from each experience. As you fill this out, don’t worry about spelling or even vocabulary – if you don’t know the precise word for it, describe the skill in terms of the problem you solved.
In the “characteristics” column, jot down what you realised about yourself from this experience, such as you work well in a team or independently, or you thrive when given a deadline.
And finally write down what you loved and hated about these experiences. This is useful data to have to plan out your career – we will cover this in a future blog so stay tuned!
In the meantime, as you start filling in your Skill Inventory Matrix you will discover the full extent of your value and the plethora and diversity of skills you have. And then you will know what I mean when I call you a super hero. Because that’s what you are.
Author’s Note: Excerpts and some of these concepts have appeared in other works by the author, including her book, Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), career columns in Physics Today and Nature Astronomy, and other publications.