STEM Soft Skills: 5 Valuable & Transferable Skills for PhDs

As we’ve discussed multiple times before, there are many great transferable skills for PhDs beyond the academy.

No matter your discipline of focus, you’ve developed valuable skill sets non-academic employers want. It may take a bit of job searching practice to figure out what those skills are and how to describe them in your cover letter or during an interview.

But rest assured: you HAVE skills.

Today we’ll narrow this topic a bit and focus on STEM soft skills. That is, widely applicable and transferable skills that PhDs in STEM fields possess.

Several of these PhD skills, like critical thinking and written communication skills, apply to PhD students from any academic field. But others, like quantitative literacy, are more specific to PhDs in STEM.

We’ll discuss what each skill means and provide some resume examples to illustrate how to translate your STEM soft skills to non-academic settings.

Without further ado, here are some key soft skills STEM PhDs have that hiring managers look for across all kinds of industries and sectors.

But First: A Word on "Soft Skills"

Okay, one more ado, then we’ll get to the list.

Most of the skills covered here are considered “interpersonal skills” or “soft skills.” If you’re not familiar, “soft skills” is the business-jargon term for subjective personality qualities that cannot be defined by a concrete, measurable set of criteria. Stuff like:

  • Creativity
  • Problem solving
  • Analytical thinking
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Integrity
  • Passion for success
  • Willingness to learn

Every year, more think pieces come out proclaiming that soft skills are just as important to employers as technical skills or “hard skills.” Here are two by Forbes and Indeed.

Academics tend to have difficulty explaining their soft skills or recognizing what soft skills they even have. Many PhDs in STEM leaving the academy don’t even realize they can put things like “problem solving” or “teamwork” on their resumes.

This is most likely because, in academia, such things are not considered skills at all. The ability to solve problems and work on a team is the bare minimum requirement for doing PhD-level STEM work.

You may not consider problem solving a skill, in sort of the same way a fish doesn’t consider breathing underwater a skill. You do it all the time. You don’t notice it.

There’s another factor at play here that makes talking about soft skills difficult for academics and PhDs in STEM specifically. In our higher education, we’re trained to stick to the concrete, the specific, and the provable.

In our dissertations, we speak only about what we can demonstrate. Science is about concrete evidence. Engineering is about concrete results.

Such eminently subjective and non-demonstrable things as soft skills are hard for academics to talk about, or even acknowledge. Discussing your “passion for success” in a lab write-up would be considered fluff and immediately deleted during the first round of edits.

For PhDs in STEM, recognizing and explaining soft skills to potential employers requires a fairly substantial shift in mindset.

So, learn to talk cogently about your STEM soft skills. Advertise them right alongside your hard skills. It takes practice. All the more reason to start practicing now.

STEM Soft Skills #1: Problem Solving & Critical Thinking

Here’s a fantastic pairing of soft skills every graduate student and PhD has, whether they realize it or not.

In the business world, “problem solving” and “critical thinking” are code for the ability to independently manage your time and complete complex tasks. So, in other words, exactly what PhDs in STEM do every day.

To elaborate a bit more, problem solving means going beyond the stated specifics of your job description. Your job isn’t defined by a fixed set of tasks. Rather, your job is to identify what tasks need to be done to achieve certain goals, and then complete those tasks whatever they may be. That’s what problem solving means.

Problem solving and critical thinking are highly valued skills. Put them on your resume. Prepare a few good story nuggets for interviews.

True, like most soft skills, problem-solving skills are subjective and can’t be concretely demonstrated in the same way as, say, your ability to conduct an experiment or write in LaTeX can be.

But what you can do is tell a story about a problem and how you went ‘above and beyond’ to solve it. An experiment gone awry. A research roadblock. A big project under a tight deadline. A tough set of students.

A good STAR story about how you thought critically to solve a complex problem is, in effect, how you ‘prove’ your STEM soft skills.

How to list on your resume:

  • “Problem solving and critical thinking”
  • “Decision making”
  • “Managed complex, multi-year scientific research projects.

STEM Soft Skills #2: Creativity & Innovation

Here are some more soft skills for PhDs in STEM that, at first glance, sound too vague or broadly construed to be called ‘skills.’ But they are!

Of course, STEM fields are not typically thought of as ‘creative.’ But we mean something different here.

As with problem solving and critical thinking skills, business people understand the term “creativity” in a specific, coded way. It means the capacity to accomplish goals without a fixed set of instructions, to self-motivate, and to work without constant guidance or supervision.

In this light, creative and innovative thinking are integral skills for all PhDs in STEM.

No matter what you wrote your dissertation on, you likely had to do a fair bit of original thinking. After all, the expectation is that a dissertation should make some sort of novel contribution to its respective field. By definition, you must do creative thinking to achieve this.

Moreover, you likely did much of that creative thinking on your own terms. You had plenty of help from your advisor, fellow grad students, lab technicians, etc. But at the end of the day, it was your research, your thesis, your conclusions.

That’s creativity and innovation.

How to list on your resume:

  • “Creative thinking”
  • “Creative and innovative mechanical engineer with 10 years of experience in X.”
  • “Researched new techniques for X and offered novel solutions to existing problems in Y.”

STEM Soft Skills #3: Collaboration & Teamwork

If you’ve worked with coworkers in a lab, you’ve collaborated. Get it?

But in all seriousness, collaboration and teamwork skills are important to employers now more than ever.

Ironically, this is in part because of COVID-19 and the strict social distance it brought about. With so many workers physically separated, the ability to collaborate effectively is crucial for any prospective employee to have.

A closely related skill to the two above is project management. This means, in the broadest possible terms, your ability to get big things done on time.

Have you taught courses? Finished your dissertation? Conducted long-term studies? Then you have project management skills. 

Include something like “collaborative work experience” on your resume. “Remotely managed long-term projects” is another great one, if you’ve done remote work.

If you can work in terms like “cross-functional” or “cross-geographic” team, all the better!

How to list on your resume:

  • “Teamwork”
  • “Project management & team leadership”
  • “Equally comfortable with independent and collaborative work environments.”
  • Collaborated effectively with cross-functional team to do X and Y.”

STEM Soft Skills #4: Quantitative Analytical Skills

Or, in layman’s terms, the ability to understand math.

Can you gather information and put it all into a table or graph? Can you read a chart and figure out what it says?

Can you interpret that information and derive conclusions from it? Can you recognize when a conclusion is not well supported by the data?

Those are all quantitative analytical skills.

Employers of all stripes love these skills because numbers pop up everywhere. Even if the job doesn’t explicitly involve data analysis, just about everyone works with data in some capacity.

It’s the information age! No matter the job, reading and understanding complex information matters. Quantitative analytical skills matter.

How to list on your resume:

  • “Quantitative analysis”
  • “Analyzed data sets to determine if designs met performance goals.”
  • “Developed mathematical models to interpret experimental results.”

STEM Soft Skills #5: Quantitative Literacy Skills

Quantitative literacy means the ability to talk and write about STEM topics, or any topics involving numbers and/or data.

Quantitative literacy should be distinguished from quantitative analytical skills. While QA refers to your ability to gather and work with data, QL is more a habit of mind. It’s about grasping data on an intuitive level and communicating it in a way non-experts can understand and appreciate.

If you’ve ever tried to explain your research to your friend, parents, significant other, etc., you probably know how difficult this sort of thing can be!

Any job that involves communicating about science, technology, or medicine in any capacity involves quantitative literacy skills.

How to list on your resume:

  • “Quantitative literacy”
  • “Numeracy skills”
  • “Substantial experience interpreting, and communicating quantitative information and mathematical concepts.”

Conclusion

Remember, above all else, employers want to see your STEM soft skills applied in real-world settings. Your lab is a real-world setting.

Just because you were a student at the time does not mean the work was only training or somehow doesn’t count as legitimate work experience.

You have skills. The hard part is becoming aware of them and figuring out how to explain them to non-academic employers. It takes practice. But it can be done.

So, learn to talk about your soft skills. There are tons of ways for STEM PhDs to describe their transferable skills in ways that private-sector employers will understand and appreciate.

Or, maybe, you’re actually interested in pursuing a teaching career? If so, check out this post on 5 terrific transferable skills in teaching.

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