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A Toolkit of Transferable Skills for Postdocs


The term transferable skills has been thrown around a lot over the past several years. The problem with it is that, unless you are fully fluent in education-speak, it leaves you with a rather loose idea of what it actually means. Few people coming out of their Ph.D. seem to know what their own transferable skills are, and even at the postdoc level, you may find yourself bluffing your way through every time the subject crops up.

Of late, the issue has been forced on me with the threat of an impeding career change (that is, with the end of my current contract looming). So I have had to think a little longer and harder about what skills we postdocs have developed within academia that can be transferred into other working environments. And I believe that I have now finally identified the core postdoc toolkit of transferable skills:

We can work like dogs when we have to. We are relentless producers of knowledge, without being too blinkered (narrow or limited). We are the coal miners of the academic world.

Solving intractable problems is our stock in trade. We can ignore petty distractions to focus on a problem when it needs to be solved. We can quickly get to its heart and defuse it before it becomes a full-blown issue, be it a misbehaving experiment or a conflict in the office.

We can make the right decisions. Call it a gut feeling if you wish, but we can, more often than not, make a good call when faced with a difficult choice. We are not procrastinators; we are decision-makers.

We can plan ahead and multitask. Blame it on overbooked equipment in the lab, but we have learned to plan in seconds, hours, weeks, and years in a multiparallel array. We can fit tasks together in the style of a Chinese puzzlemaker and still find time for a quick coffee break.

We are nugget hunters par excellence. We do not fall for the obvious pitfalls of losing heart over the daily production of "difficult-to-interpret" results or getting lost in the vast amount of scientific literature.

We can look at things in a fresh way. Faced with a blank sheet or mind-boggling complexity, we can come up with lots of novel ideas, including the odd knock-them-dead idea. Originality of thought is our greatest unsung quality.

We can think really hard for a very long time. Our brains can take it when others fall asleep, get bored, or become impatient.

We have a really short reaction time. We all know that science is perceived to move really slowly, but I challenge anyone to be as efficient as a postdoc with a 48-hour submission deadline!

We can write well in a range of different styles. You might not have seen it quite this way before, but we do punchy one-liners (that's short-version titles), abstracts, reports, proposals, outline plans, letters, reviews, and original articles, not to mention full-blown theses. That's quite a repertoire!

We can speak. We can address packed conference halls and grab the attention of 100 students in a lecture theatre. Another thing that terrifies most people and we get to do routinely is approach eminent people and, what's more, sometimes with grilling questions.

We can explain complex ideas in simple terms. Once you've managed to explain the nuts and bolts of your postdoctoral research project to your friends, family, and a bunch of primary schoolchildren, you can clarify pretty much anything to anyone.

We can manage and motivate people. Science is a people game, and we get to supervise students in what is often their first experience of really difficult work. The challenge of keeping chins up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is something you might expect to encounter as a military officer, but we postdocs get to do it day-in, day-out.

We can negotiate. From scrounging other people's stuff to creating some elbow room in the lab, we are veritable wheelers and dealers.

We can show extreme perseverance in the face of adversity. Your experiments fail. You lose weeks of work and have to start it all over again. Or you are simply tired beyond belief. To overcome all this and carry on, you must be a pretty tenacious survivor.

I do hope that you will recognise some of these skills in your own portfolio, for they are common currency in the postdoc game. I agree that you may not want to put them as bluntly in your CV, but nevertheless, they are a gold mine to be exploited. What a boon for anyone thinking of starting their own business. What a prospect for an employer looking for a capable and assertive candidate. What a source of encouragement for the thousands of us who, right now, have no idea what we will be doing 12 months from now. Remember, you are resourceful. You are a postdoctoral research fellow.

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