Transferable Skills After a PhD

I’m on the hunt for a new job again, after resigning from a marketing role with a venture incubator in my first attempt at a “real” job outside academia. I was told by many Singaporeans that Q4 was the worst time to quit, that most people leave after getting their bonuses in the new year / around Chinese New Year, and that quitting without a new job lined up is something you should *never* do. I guess i’m stupid.

But i’m too idealistic really, preferring to search full-time for something new rather than to do something which doesn’t fit my long-term goals. I don’t think many people coming out of PhD programs have a good idea of what’s really out there. I didn’t know that jobs in the so-called “cost-centre” had less room for salary negotiations, or even what basic functions were in a company (i.e. operations, sales, finance, legal, etc.). PhDs also tend to undervalue their skills at a time when it’s critical to blow your own horn.

What i learnt through failed interviews, is that:

  1. You must know what you want and what you can bring to the role. If you cannot fake enthusiasm, at least be curious and ask questions! Once you know more about something, it usually becomes more interesting.
  2. You must be specific about your accomplishments and stories. Give real numbers for timelines, # of people involved, budgets, improvements, deliverables, and whatever else you can think of. Also be clear about responsibilities and the scope of your contributions.
  3. Interviews are a two-way street and you should see if the company is a good fit for you. Having said that, don’t go in too honest, thinking that if they don’t like you the way you are, you wouldn’t want to work there anyway. You are supposed to be professional; you aren’t there to meet like-minded BFFs.
  4. It’s bad to over-complicate questions in your mind. Interviewers usually ask pretty standard sets of questions, and the tricks you are imagining, are not of the smart, intellectual variety. Prepare ahead of time and answer confidently.
  5. People do hire based on who they liked, but only if you have convinced them you can do the job first.

If you’re fresh from leaving academia, you’re probably competing with college grads for entry-level jobs. Being told “you’re overqualified” is just an excuse companies have for not wanting to pay you more based on your educational credentials alone. You probably didn’t convey the value you could bring vs. another candidate. So think about it… aren’t the points below what really differentiate you?

  1. Ability to work independently and contribute original work
  2. Critical thought, analytical ability, problem-solving skills
  3. Ability to work with fuzzy, ill-defined goals; to handle uncertainty and multiple changes in projects
  4. Perseverance, high-tolerance for repeatedly failing but getting back up each time
  5. Experience with committee and peer-review processes
  6. Leadership skills i.e. directing undergraduate research, chairing and managing collaborative projects
  7. Vision, ability to identify trends and solutions that hold tremendous impact
  8. Project management skills from conception (literature search, identifying problems/gaps/opportunities, planning) to finish (interpreting results, validation, communicating learnings via publications and presentations)
  9. Results-oriented mindset, always wanting to be better
  10. Ability to digest large amounts of data, from disparate sources, and to synthesize them into meaningful ideas

I think some of the major challenges to a career switcher from academia, is that people can stereotype you. We are generally perceived as lacking business utility, practical interest/drive, or not having great social skills. It’s your job to dispel these misconceptions! Also in Singapore, you definitely have to network, network, network. The easiest way to not have job applications sucked into a black hole of you-will-never-hear-back-from-us-ever, is to find someone willing to give you a chance. Good luck.


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