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.

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. Yes, but is there anything unique in the list to getting a Ph.D. from grad school? Couldn’t you have gained the same skills on the job? Despite being called the Ivory Tower, grad school isn’t separate from the real world. The rules are different, but it is still played by humans.

  2. I like the table, that’s very handy for job seekers. Kudos to you for organizing it.

  3. Grad school really prepares you for a lot of things, I think that it is great how easy it makes prepareing for a career.

  4. It’s kind of depressing that you have to go to grad school to gain these skills these days. 20, 30 years ago, your undergraduate college experience should have provided you with these skills that should allow you to get a job in a variety of fields. The standards for college have decreased so much that grad school is the new standard for higher education, and it’s unfortunate that kids aren’t getting the same value for their time in school as they used to.

  5. @John Spevacek: Although I agree that you can learn many of the same skills on the job and in grad school, many grad students really feel like they wasted their time in grad school if they don’t get their degree or don’t want to do research. The reality is (and I think the point of this article is) that your time in grad school does not have to be viewed as wasted time, even if you do not pursue the career that you originally entered grad school to pursue. Education is so much more than a degree or content in the classroom, and I love that JAEP highlighted the side-benefits of grad school.

    That being said, I also agree that grad school and “the real world” are more similar than most people think. I think most grad students would be better off thinking of their graduate studies as internships with specialized training components rather than additional schooling. The degree does not matter as much as the experiences “on the job.”

  6. @Constant Writer: I don’t think that this means that the “standard” for undergraduate education has decreased at all. Only the focus of it has. Now that one requires a graduate degree for most high-paying/high-skill jobs, undergraduate education has become more focused on theoretical and broad-based education.

    Also, grad school is a unique work-like environment (there’s no way you can work 9-5 in a lab in undergraduate) so offers a unique introduction to the “real” working world. While yes, it is more difficult to learn this skills in undergraduate education, it is still possible, and graduate school offers a unique experience to do so.

  7. Thank you for sharing your insight. The skills gained in graduate school are valuable. True some would gain the same values with work experience. I appreciate the final bullet point. For some graduate school is not about the PhD and some elect for the MS or to exit with no degree. The premise behind this article is not telling you to choose graduate school. However, if you are attending do not limit your future career choices to the traditional expectations.

  8. @Constant writer: I gather that your field of interest is perhaps not chemistry. But as someone who did get her undergraduate (and MS)degrees in chemistry a number of years ago, I would dispute your contention that standards for attaining an undergraduate degree have deteriorated. On the contrary, I just think that science has progressed to the point, that despite the inclusion of much new material in the undergraduate curriculum, it just takes longer to get out to “the cutting edge”.

    Much interesting work these days is being done in interdisciplinary settings, and the fields of science are not as narrow and exclusive as they used to be. Again, I believe that this demands more knowledge and experience, not less. Graduate school is just one of the significant settings within which that knowledge and experience can be attained.

    @Christine, my graduate program (somewhat to its own amazement) issued me a form stating that I could be re-instated to the PhD program “at some time in the future”, “without prejudice”. So far, I haven’t felt the urge to take them up on that. Chart your own future in the manner that suits you best, and don’t close the doors on future possibilities.