'But I have no skills' and other myths


Ever feel like you have no skills? Do you wonder whether your education and experience as a PhD-level scientist has left you with no employable skills? Do you think you’ve been trained for only one job, that of a university professor? Do you believe your research is so specialized that no one will ever hire you?

If so, you are not alone. Most of the PhDs and postdocs I have worked with over the years have voiced similar concerns. 

“How can I find a job if I have nothing to offer an employer?” 

Driven by my strong belief that science PhDs possess MANY skills sought by employers, I set out to collect data to prove it. In 2014-2015, I designed and administered a survey to shed light on this research question:

Do science PhDs develop skills organically during their PhD programs that are necessary for success across occupations?

To take part in the survey, respondents had to have graduated from a doctoral degree program between 2004 and 2014, had to have studied either in the life, computational, social, engineering, or physical sciences, and had to have worked, studied, or trained in the U.S. for part of that time.

More than 11,000 PhD-level scientists participated in the survey, yielding just over 8,000 usable responses. In that survey, respondents were asked about their level of agreement with the following statement: 

“I developed or continued to develop the following skills during my PhD program:”

  • Discipline-specific knowledge
  • Ability to gather and interpret information
  • Ability to analyze data
  • Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  • Oral communication skills
  • Written communication skills
  • Ability to learn quickly
  • Creativity/innovative thinking
  • Ability to manage a project

The same group was then asked the following, followed by the same list of skills:

“This skill is important for success in my current job.”

What do the survey results show?

The results show that PhD graduates, upon reflection on their graduate training, do indeed believe that they have amassed these skills. And on the employment side? Yes, they also believe that these same skills are required for success in their current occupations.

% acquired skill during training Skill % important for success on the job
95% Discipline-specific knowledge 80%
95% Ability to gather and interpret information 92%
93% Ability to analyze data 83%
83% Ability to make decisions and solve problems 93%
82% Oral communication skills 93%
82% Written communication skills 91%
71% Ability to learn quickly 89%
67% Creativity / innovative thinking 82%
66% Ability to manage a project 87%
© Sinche, M. 2016. Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science

Throughout your PhD and postdoctoral training in science, you are developing skills that will serve you for the remainder of your professional life. Be sure to recognize these skills — and share them with employers every chance you get.

For more information on careers for PhDs in science and how to identify those that fit you, check out Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science.

Melanie SincheMelanie Sinche is an educator, writer, and career counselor with more than 15 years experience working with and advising graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in university, non-profit, and government agency settings. Her work at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine focuses on the career and professional development of all trainees through the development of novel educational programming. Follow Melanie on Twitter at @melaniesinche.