9 Useless PhD Transferable Skills In An Industry Job

While some PhD transferable skills give you an edge, others are harmful for your employability.

You hear a lot about the transferable skills you must acquire during your PhD experience. The skills that you need to get a job in industry and which will make you successful in your following career.

The main idea here is that industry recruiters have a hard time understanding how your PhD makes you a good candidate for a job opening.

In order to help the recruiter understand your value, you need to mention those transferable skills you developed during your PhD and present how they can be applied in your future job in industry.

Typical PhD transferable skills are being able to give a presentation, to manage a project, or to supervise a small team.

If you put together slide decks and presented at scientific conferences, you can do the same in industry.

If you were able to take a complex project like a PhD, split it in subprojects, manage all the timelines and deliverables, you are expected to do some project management successfully in industry.

If you supervised a group of interns during your PhD, you could supervise a small group of younger colleagues later on in industry.

So far so good, that PhD was not such a waste of time after all. Heck, you might even be well suited for a job in industry.

On the flip side, not all PhD skills you developed are so positive. In fact, some will harm you and won’t let you to move forward. They are bad habits.

In the rest of this post we are going to cover 9 useless PhD transferable skills that can work against you in an industry job, aka career-limiting skills.

Not a problem if you plan to stay in Academia. A serious hazard if you want to move onto industry.

9 Useless PhD transferable skills in an industry job

#1 Long and complex writing (emails)

Mastering writing skills is a pride of any PhD student who learns to give even to a simple message a high level scientific twist.

Unfortunately, not everyone will be impressed by ‘Nature-like’ writing.

This is especially the case when it comes to emailing, which is the primary source of communication in many organizations. Writing emails is an art form of itself and a craft that you shouldn’t jump into with an academic mindset.

When racing through your inbox to sort out new mail, the last thing you want is a large chunk of text. You can tell that it took substantial efforts to wordsmith the five paragraph message that doesn’t fit on the screen. Scrolling down to the end of the email, ah yes, the signature proudly states ‘PhD’.

What to do instead

In many cases, you can distill down a long message to a handful of sentences with specific questions.

So before hitting send, think of the purpose of your message. Then aim to convey your question/request in the smallest amount of text possible.

And trust me, this is challenging (as Mark Twain said:  ‘If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter’).

For more information on how to improve your email skills, check out Michael Hyatt’s podcast episode #34 (MAKE YOUR E-MAIL MESSAGES MORE EFFECTIVE AND PROFESSIONAL).

#2 Going too deep into science

In academia we dive deep into the subject. It’s like when during your presentation you’re asked a question and you’ll respond with an elaborate explanation along with some citations to relevant articles.

Here are some practical examples in an industry job where this can be harmful:

  • Giving additional information can raise more questions, which you want to avoid during events like inspections. Communication in these cases should only serve the purpose of providing the information asked for with the mentality of ‘every word could be used against you’.
  • Your message is too complex for your audience. This may sound like an obvious point, as during PhD we are aware that not everyone is an expert in our field. However, there is a vast difference between scientists who are not familiar with your topic and non-scientists who don’t work in science at all.
  • Excessive scientific information in company reports. Including extra information leads to bloated and complex reports making it difficult to find what you actually need.

What to do instead

Always evaluate which information is necessary and what is just ‘interesting’ or ‘nice to have’. Eliminate the latter. Get used to the idea that extra information is not a bonus but can be harmful.

#3 Working under flexible deadlines

During PhD there are rare cases when you need to complete a project by a specific date. In the worst case, you can always push your timelines by several weeks or months.

Even the four year mark of PhD completion is rather arbitrary. Do you know people that needed more than 4 years to complete a PhD? I do. Dozens of them.

In industry when you’re given a deadline you are expected to deliver by that time. Missing a deadline or extending it costs extra money. Industry doesn’t like to waste money.

What to do instead

The obvious fix is to commit to set deadlines. During your work on a project constantly evaluate the progress.

Also, define what is absolutely necessary for successful completion and eliminate the extras.

#4 Doing the sprint

If you are an over achieving PhD (so basically a regular PhD), you are in a constant sprint.

The race never stops as you complete one set of experiments, submit an article, prepare for a congress and start another study.

It’s no wonder that many PhDs have weeks of unused holidays left and days of overworked hours after defense. The problem with this approach is that if you continue in this pace in a regular job, you will quickly burn out.

What to do instead

Realize that your career after PhD is no longer a sprint but a marathon. Therefore allocate your energy and resources with care.

Don’t do over-hours when unnecessary and take regular holidays.

#5 Overcommitting

Your words and statements will have different weight if you’re working in the industry.

Before, phrases like ‘I’ll try this out’ during a work discussion with your supervisor, would mean ‘I’ll take a look at it when I have time’.

Now such statements, especially if they are relevant to the business need, are seen as commitments. Be aware that anything that you say along these lines will be setting expectations and not going through will be seen as underperforming.

What to do instead

Before yelling out any promises, take a step back to evaluate if you are ready to commit.

Sometimes it’s difficult to hold back your enthusiasm and excitement; however in most cases a good idea will be a good idea in an hour or on the next day.

#6 Spreading yourself thin on too many tasks

Participating in many projects during PhD increases your chances of getting more publishable data as testing out five hypotheses is likely to yield more hits than working on just one.

How is this approach detrimental for your further career?

The book ‘Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’ by Greg McKeown explains the concept of spreading yourself thin by undertaking too much.

When you move in many directions at the same time, you get stuck in one place. This is the reason why successful people stop growing and plateau as the more successful they become, the more opportunities knock on their door.

By jumping at each opportunity they become hamsters in a wheel.

What to do instead

In short, I would recommend reading the Essentialism book :). The two key takeaways that I would highlight here are:

  • Take time and think through your following steps. It’s easy to overload yourself with work creating an illusion of progress. However, running at fast speed but in a wrong direction won’t get you to your destination.
  • Lose the ‘scarcity mindset’ and say ‘no’ to the opportunities that are just good. You only want the ‘’hell yeah!’’ projects (‘No “yes.” Either “HELL YEAH!” or “no.” ’ by Derek Sivers).

#7 Over-focusing on details

Focusing on details is a strong quality of a scientist, but only in the right context.

When working on an in-depth scientific question, details are you friends. The problems start when the same mindset is applied to all projects.

In industry it’s often necessary to see the ‘big picture’. Over-focusing on details will lead to losing the momentum stuck in the minutiae.

What to do instead

Always keep the end result in mind and challenge all of your actions.

What information is truly critical and what information you must skip? See it as gears on your bike, the setting for going uphill will not be optimal for racing on the flat ground.

#8 Having too many priorities

Too many priorities mean no priorities at all. Instead it’s a long to do list.

These lists are very dangerous as they tend to grow and the critical tasks get lost covered up by unimportant crap. However, it gets worse as not only you lose the sight of essential projects but you also get demotivated.

Starting your day with twenty tasks on the list and completing just one or two will make you feel like a total loser.

Eliminating tasks from such lists as they grow exponentially is like removing water from a sinking ship with a spoon.

What to do instead

At the start of each day ask yourself what tasks you need to complete to have a successful day.

The trick is that it should be not more than one or two tasks.

A caveat here is that you may have a job where the priorities constantly change. Therefore, keep in mind that the priority list is dynamic and don’t feel frustrated or lost when the priorities shift during the day.

#9 Perfectionism

Academic work cultivates perfectionism.

Think of the well-shaped text for articles, tightly aligned figures on a poster, ideal slides and beautiful charts with carefully selected color schemes.

The culmination of this is of course the thesis. Every detail in the formatting and the cover seem crucial. At heart we know that this book will be forgotten the next minute after the defense (more so if you leave the academia) and yet we put in countless hours to make it perfect.

While perfectionism can be a positive trait in some cases, it becomes dangerous when it’s holding you back from completing projects on time.

What to do instead

Accept the mentality of ‘the good enough’ and only do what’s required focusing on the overall result. See this as the ‘minimum effective dose’ where excess input of time and energy will be a waste.

Are you going to take action?

These ‘PhD transferable skills’ acquired during the PhD period are not necessarily bad. It would suck if after all the long hours of work and tremendous efforts you would be ‘damaged’ to do other jobs.

However, you must learn to see these PhD transferable skills as tools in your tool box and each of the tools should be used correctly for the right purpose.

Want to leave Academia and get a job in industry?

Check these related blog posts we have on finding a job in industry after a PhD.

About Olga Pougovkina

Olga joined the pharma industry after obtaining her PhD in Medical Biochemistry. While finishing her PhD she faced the challenges of making career choices and transitioning into industry. This inspired her to start postphdcareer.com, where she shares information on career development after a PhD.