Elizabeth Bohm is a policy advisor at the Royal Society. Before that, she was working in a lab and she also trained in law.
Tom Weller is a science teacher and runs children’s parties to transmit his love of science. Before that, he was studying physics and has a PhD from University College London.
Jenna Stevens-Smith is the outreach and public engagement manager for the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London. Before that, she studied bioengineering, for which she also holds a PhD.
They all started off on one career path, only to realize that their talents and interests lay elsewhere. Luckily, they found that they already possessed a number of abilities that made them especially suited for their prospective alternative careers. In short, they exploited their transferable skills.
At the Naturejobs Career Expo in London, I — along with other participants to the transferable skills session — was guided by panel chair Anna Price, Researcher Development Adviser at King’s College London, to discover these elusive abilities and their uses. Price defined a transferable skill as “any skill that you can learn in one context and employ in another”. This definition is certainly broad, but so are the skills it refers to. The challenge lies in identifying the ones we possess, as well as in establishing how to channel them into a rewarding career. They are not hard to find: a number of tools and lists exist, but the real question is, ‘how to apply them?’ To answer it, there are nothing like success stories.
To help scientists identify their transferable skills, an international programme for active career learning and development called Vitae interviewed over 100 academics in order to identify abilities they consider fundamental for their day-to-day activities. Vitae then sorted these skills into a Researcher Development Framework comprising four main domains:
- Knowledge and intellectual ability
- Personal effectiveness
- Research governance and organization
- Engagement, influence and impact
Within the domain of knowledge and intellectual ability, many skills including subject knowledge, research methodology and critical thinking, are implicitly well-developed in scientists, as they are the building bricks of any academic training. Some of these skills can, however, be crucial in other professions. For instance, analytical abilities are particularly prized in Bohm’s work as a science policy advisor when dealing with economic patents, the scientific literature and reports from non-governmental organizations, amongst other things. “You have to be able to sift through all of that and bring it to a few points so that your decision makers understand why you feel like you do and how to make their decisions”, she said.
Personal effectiveness, the second domain, is required at least to a certain degree in every job, and it comes in many flavours: juggling multiple commitments, meetings and people requires excellent time management; keeping track of deadlines and scheduling one’s work calls for preparation and prioritization; even personal commitments call for their share of planning. During her PhD, Stevens-Smith honed her time-management skills by training in professional volleyball 4 hours a day. In addition, self-reflection and continuous improvement are valuable tools in a teaching profession. In teacher Weller’s words, “you have to ask yourself: what can I do tomorrow that’s different from what I did today?”.
Engagement is possibly the most relevant to all the described careers and it can take different forms depending on the specific job requirements, among others: persuading a non-scientist to support our ideas, conveying information in an interesting and appealing manner, and engaging a very varied audience with information that needs to be both clear and interesting. This skill is often the hardest for scientists, who, says Bohm, tend to be “straightforward and logical, but lack a degree of diplomacy”.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of qualities you are supposed to possess, do not despair. Here you will find you likely have already mastered quite a few. While some transferable skills are innate, many more can be improved, nurtured and trained, by specific courses as well as by our own lifestyle, and guidance is available in many institutions. Just see it as the umpteenth side project of your PhD.