Lilly’s eyes move between the job ad on the left side of her screen to her resume on the right. It’s a position she would love to have. But all Lilly can think is, “Four years of Ph.D. and 2 years of postdoc—that is all you have on offer.” She tries not to cry and desperately hits her head on the desk in front of her. The thumping noise fills the office.
“Lilly, what’s up?” Jane asks, worried.
“I am working on my resume,” Lilly cries out, slowly lifting her head. “I would like to apply for this medical science liaison position at a company south of town. But looking at my resume, my chances of getting invited for an interview are ridiculously low. I’ve basically held multiple research positions doing just about the same stuff. I haven’t done anything to make me an interesting candidate.”
“Oh, come on,” chimes in Markus, another postdoc in the office. “I am sure you have some brag-worthy achievements!”
“Didn’t you win some type of prize?” Jane asks.
“Nope. But I just tried to set the Guinness World Record for the highest number of failed syntheses in a row.”
“I hold that record,” Markus laughs. “But I’ll bet you could get the record for the number of times you’ve printed exactly half of your Excel document.”
“That is something for the skills section,” Lilly chuckles.
With the mood lightened, they turn a more serious eye to Lilly’s conundrum.
“You’ve lived in several countries, which shows your intercultural competence,” Jane suggests. “You’re also a fantastic teacher! You are able to explain science to first year undergrads, technicians, and even professors, without boring anyone.”
“AND, with the patience of a sloth. I couldn’t do that,” Markus adds.
“You finish everything on time, making you an experienced time manager and project leader,” Jane continues.
“And you organized our symposium,” Markus says.
Lilly smiles. “So, you’re saying my life has not been utterly pointless thus far?”
Markus and Jane nod in agreement.
“Thanks guys. I’ve got some ideas now.” Lilly rubs her temples and turns back to her desk. With pen and paper, she writes down the things that Jane and Markus just pointed out, then begins to think more broadly about what else she has done.
She remembers how one of her projects kick-started an invention that ultimately led to the creation of a startup. Lilly had never been involved in the startup itself, and she hadn’t thought that anyone would care that she was listed as a co-inventor on a patent that her supervisor had filed. But, maybe a hiring manager would see value in steering research in an economically viable direction.
And a while ago, she participated in a 3-minute YouTube video to explain her research to a lay audience. Maybe this illustrates her communication abilities and outreach experience.
Lilly studies the job ad to identify all the skills the company is looking for. She finds eight in total and writes them on a piece of paper—the beginning of a “mind map.” Around each skill, in a different color, she writes her accomplishments that could prove each skill. Then, with a third color she ranks all of them based on relevance and is pleasantly surprised: For all but one, she has a pretty strong example.
One skill is still open, “client contact.” Frankly, she never had anything to do with clients before. But she’s confident that she could learn that on the job. And seven out of eight isn’t bad.
Looking at the colorful page in front of her, Lilly feels reinvigorated. What seemed impossible half an hour ago—writing a convincing resume—now seems possible.
The moral of the story is:
You are probably stronger than you think.
It is very common for Ph.D. students and postdocs to feel insecure about their achievements and their employability outside of academia. But in many cases, it’s just understatement or a lack of looking at things the way industry does that makes early-career researchers feel like they’re just one of many and have nothing to show for the years they put in—at least nothing that others don’t have.
But you are likely to have many skills that have significant value. To find these skills, dig deeper.
Take a poster prize as an example. At first, such a prize may seem unremarkable, like a little pat on the back. But industry greatly values the poster prize. It shows you can get to the point and have visual intelligence.
The better you analyze the skills employers need and match them with your accomplishments, the easier it will be for you to sell yourself as a valuable asset! A mind map will help you get away from the academic fixation on publication lists and see the broader set of skills you have that employers will be looking for.
*Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.