There are plenty of ways to make yourself more employable before you graduate from the academic lab

An illustration showing a pencil drawing a ladder

Source: © Gillian Blease/Ikon Images

‘Wow, you resigned from your job without having the next one lined up?’, I almost whisper into the telephone. I am speaking with Clara, a biomedical scientist with a PhD and two years’ work experience in industry. She faced severe problems with her boss, tried and failed to resolve them and quit.

Although I risk being seen as overly conventional, I ask her, ‘Couldn’t you have stayed in your job until you got your next offer? Are you not afraid of unemployment?’ ‘Ah, don’t worry’, she replies. ‘I’ve seen so many colleagues have an easy time getting their second job in industry that I never thought about being unemployed for too long.’ And it turned out to be true: whereas she needed to write 80 applications before she got a job offer two years ago, she got three job offers out of just 10 applications this time around.

Scoring the first job after university can be challenging for graduates of some fields, but moving from this first job to a second seems much easier. Why exactly is this difference so big?

We have worked in career development for scientists for nine years, and have come across the same three reasons for this over and over again. First, you get better access to an industry network; and as networking is a vital part of professional development, most people give increasing weight to this activity as their career progresses. Second, you will have gained a broader outlook on career options and horizontal mobility in general. And third, you will have developed an industry-specific skill set.

But you don’t have to wait until you’ve started your first job to work on your skills. Here, we look at four typical skills gaps that fresh graduates have (or at least believe they have), and share ways to address them before you leave academia.

Working in a regulated environment

Pretty much every privately run lab or manufacturing site is GxP certified or follows ISO norms, meaning strict quality guidelines and regulations must be adhered to. While university labs are typically not certified according to these standards, there are ways to demonstrate that you can work in a regulated environment. Meeting the standard of documentation needed to file a patent is a good example. Alternatively, you could set up your own mini quality management system, for example by motivating your lab mates to write standard operating procedures for the instruments in the lab. As an added benefit, this will help to prevent unnecessary downtime caused by inexperienced users, and in turn help newcomers to have a smoother start. Another idea to show that you are a good fit for working in a regulated environment is to act as the Health and Safety representative for your lab.

Formal leadership experience

This skills gap is often just a perceived gap. Most graduates have been leaders in lots of different settings: for example in a sports club, in teaching or in research supervision. When applying, point out these responsibilities. Leading without formal positional power is more challenging than from an official role, so emphasise these experiences too. Be assertive in describing yourself as a ‘leader in the making’.

Commercial awareness

‘Industry earns money, academia spends it,’ goes a famous quip. For this skills gap, you can use any experience that brought you in touch with money, either privately or at work. If you feel like you’re still lacking some of this experience, you could volunteer to help your boss with their next instrument purchase or grant application. You see, working on your skill set doesn’t have to go against the interests of your colleagues – it can be quite the opposite! Additionally, mention any potential commercial applications of your research in your application documents.

Adaptive communication

Being able to communicate your work to a wide range of different people is a very important skill. Can you work with the marketing team to find the unique selling point of your invention? Can you communicate results to customers who lack scientific training ? This gap can be closed before graduation by volunteering at science communication events and joining outreach activities, or by just exposing yourself to the challenge when the non-scientists among your family and friends ask you over a coffee, ‘Tell me, what exactly do you do during this PhD?’

Overall, employers want to know that you are able and willing to fill your skills gaps and that you know what you are signing up for. They often do this by asking for ‘relevant industry experience’ in their job ads. Don’t despair if you lack this experience. Work out what your skills gaps are, and tailor your academic training to actively close them. In job applications, highlight how your academic (and other) experiences relate to the skills needed in industry and describe what you´ve learned in an assertive way.