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The beauty of transferable skills: How grad school prepares you for careers off the beaten path

Let’s focus our attention now to one of the things I love about grad school.

Believe it or not, I’m not all doom and gloom about all things grad school related. In fact, I would argue that there are far more things I enjoy and love (and will even miss!) about grad school than things I dislike about it.

You may doubt me now, especially if you’ve read my previous posts on how I’ve fallen out of love with research and have lost interest in an academic career since coming to grad school. But stick with me, I want to prove you otherwise.

One of the reasons why I’m almost certain I won’t regret finishing my Ph.D. (despite the fact that I don’t actually really need it to do what I want to do!) is this: I’m going to come away from this program after 5+ long years with so much more than those three coveted letters after my last name.

In basketball, Michael Jordan had mad skills. In science, you too have acquired skills! Photo credit: flickr user sithuseo

I’ll be taking along with me a boat-load of skills. Major skills. Mad skills, I might even say.

No, I’m not talking about lab skills, like being able to align a laser, pipette with extreme accuracy, or isolate leukocytes from whole blood. (Those skills are far from useful when it comes to being a science writer, which is my non-traditional career of choice).

I’m talking about the skills that were gained when you were faced head-on with challenges and didn’t quit. When you went through ups and downs and wondered why you were subjecting yourself to such misery, and yet persevered. Diligence. Focus. The ability to fearlessly dive into new research areas, critically read journal articles, work on a team, and talk about science to a variety of audiences. Those skills that are transferable.

Ahh, transferrrable skills. That’s what this is all about.

These skills are things that you may not realize you are acquiring day to day, but when you look back over a period of months and years, you realize that you’ve grown. (Has anyone else ever looked back and read their grad school personal statement from four years back and cringed? Umm, yeah, I’ve definitely grown as a writer!)

I have to preface the rest of this post by saying that I wrote this as a charge to grad students, but really the principles extend to those scientists who work lab jobs and teaching jobs as well. I just chose to tailor this message to my fellow grad students, but for everyone else out there, I encourage you see beyond the specifics to the principles that may apply to your current situation.

Presentation and communication skills are two of the many transferrable skills one acquires in grad school. Photo credit: flickr user o5com

So, to all my fellow (or former) grad students out there, before you navigate away from this blog post thinking it may apply to some grad students but not to you, take heart! You may not realize it right away, but you too have grown over time.

This eventual realization will do two main things for you:

  • You’ll be assured that your time in grad school was not a waste of your life.
  • If you’re unsure what you want to do once you get your degree, you’ll be unafraid to explore non-traditional careers in science– you may be more prepared for them than you think!

I guess the reason I’m so adamant about this message of transferrable skills is that I have met too many grad students who say they feel like they’re not growing, or that they’re only getting less smart as grad school goes on. Or, they feel that the only thing grad school is preparing them for is either an academic, teaching, or industry job.

That is so not true, people!

To help you process through and discover what transferable skills you have acquired, I’ve made a handy dandy table, comprised of potential grad school scenarios and skills acquired.

I feel like I should make one of those cheesy online quiz thingies where you answer questions about different experiences you’ve had and it spits out what alternative science career path is the right one for you. Hmmm, future endeavor for me? Maybe not…

But I hope that by starting to think about transferable skills, that this could be a starting point for you, especially those of you who have been discouraged about grad school. I hope you’ll realize all the potential you have to contribute to science and society in significant and meaningful ways. And that grad school wasn’t such a bad idea after all even if you end up choosing a career off the beaten path.

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