Developing Transferable Skills During Science Training

By Joanne Kamens

teamwork and communicationYou are finishing your PhD or perhaps you have almost completed a postdoctoral position… or two. You have learned a lot. Whether you are pursuing an academic career path or moving in a nonacademic direction, there are many “transferable” skills you have developed in addition to learning how to be a scientist. Why not stack the deck in your favor? Look for opportunities to practice transferable skills in ways that will also enhance your science training and that will put you in position to pursue a diverse set of career paths.

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Here are some concrete things you can do to develop those transferable skills while you are also learning to be an excellent scientist.

Leadership and management

Take a lead from the amazing students at Washington University who started the BALSA group, a nonprofit that provides short-term consulting services. Initiative and professional experience are prized skills.

Collaboration and teamwork

One of the defining characteristics of nonacademic science careers is that a team is almost always involved. Demonstrating your ability to work well with others can be done in many ways… and many labs in academia benefit from strong collaborations to advance science faster. Help other people when you can. The colleagues you help will be future advocates and references.

  • Collaborate with another lab, in another field maybe, and publish

  • Join a lab that has multiple collaborations, even with Industry labs

  • Work on a big project that relies on a division of labor

  • Serve on a committee and do something big like plan a conference

  • Recruit many supporters and mentors that will speak for you (and you for them)


Being able to communicate effectively is part of what makes working in a team productive. Take all the opportunities you can to be communicating about science with others. If opportunities don't exist in your department, create them and show your leadership skills too.

  • Teach classes

  • Go to workshops and conferences on interviewing, resume writing, and networking

  • Practice your English if you need to, go to ESL classes

  • Practice your presentation skills (as much as you can), form a peer mentoring group to get real feedback

  • Write whenever you can, find supportive editors so your first drafts are always excellent

Technical knowledge and creativity

Become a “thought leader,” develop a technical “niche,” develop a useful new assay, master a new technique and be able to talk and own these accomplishments. Employers and academic departments want to be able to tell that you know about something and are passionate about it.  

Another excellent perspective on this topic can be found on the UK Career Site for Researchers called Vitae. Vitae recently published a career development framework for career skills. Download a summary PDF here or try out the online Researcher Development Framework Planner.

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Topics: Science Careers, Professional Development

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