Four Lab Skills that You Can Use Outside of the Lab

Oct. 3, 2017

Laboratory research experience is a rich source of technical knowledge and scientific expertise. However, working in the lab also provides opportunities to develop and demonstrate skills that you can transfer to a variety of professional contexts-these are called transferable skills. Read on to explore four transferable skills:

1. Initiative and Enterprise

When have you shown it in the lab?

You stare at your data, day in and day out. There's just one experiment missing before you can put the pieces together and determine the mechanism behind your phenotype. You analyze paper after paper and draw every diagram you could possibly think of to describe the data you have to date. Then...Eureka! You found it! You quickly run back to the lab to plan and conduct the vital experiment that will fill the missing pieces of your mechanism.

Why is it transferable?

Scientists consistently demonstrate entrepreneurial initiative. They see a problem and strategize creative and unique approaches in order to address that problem. Industries often thrive from developing and executing creative solutions to gaps or problems, and you already do this every time you design an experiment!

2. Risk Management

When have you shown it in the lab?

Your super-creative experiment may provide the answer that you've been waiting for, and while you are filled with excitement, you still perform due diligence to design your experiment very carefully. Did you perform that diagnostic digest before your next cloning step? I bet you did. Why? Because you know how to reduce unfavorable outcomes by being preemptive. Your laboratory training has taught you that you cannot assume that a restriction digest worked to completion until you can see the digest on a gel. There are many other instances where you have designed targeted interventions in your experiments to make sure that your protocols work, and that your data is usable. In other words, you know how to identify and reduce risks.

Why is it transferable?

Risk management is key to managing projects in the workplace because it allows you to minimize factors that can be detrimental to your desired outcomes. So don't be startled when an interviewer asks you how you manage risk. Just remember that you've been doing it all along!

3. Negotiation

When have you shown it in the lab?

Uh oh, you forgot to sign up for that machine you need to do an important experiment. Your colleague, who signed up for the machine for two hours more than they probably needed, will still need some convincing to work with you. But you have developed quite a repertoire of negotiation skills throughout your time in the lab. You approach your colleague and brainstorm ways that you can help to streamline their sample preparation, reducing the overall time that they need on that machine!   

Why is it transferable?

Negotiation is pivotal to ensuring organizational productivity, equitable outcomes, and conflict resolution. Through your laboratory training, you have demonstrated an ability to analyze problems, devise solution-based outcomes, and empathize with the needs of your colleagues.   

4. Pitching

When have you shown it in the lab?

You finished your key experiment and the data looks great!  You think you found a mechanism for your earlier phenotype. The data is nicely analyzed and rigorously repeated. Your Powerpoint slides look stellar. At this point, you will present your findings to either a committee to defend your dissertation, to investigators during your annual department meeting, or to a lab meeting of your supervisor and colleagues. You are confident in your results, but why should the audience believe you? To test you, every piece of data that you present is followed by a question from the audience. Even the sight of a raised hand might make you doubt your findings at times. Nevertheless, you persevere. You answer confidently and persuasively, because you have been trained to review the scientific literature, analyze your data, and identify the shortcomings and limitations of your work. You know how to pitch your mechanism and back it up.

Why is it transferable?

Effective pitching allows companies to convince investors to fund their work. Whether you start your own business, work in venture capital, or find yourself needing to justify any professional endeavor, you need to leverage your experience in perfecting your pitch. Convince your corporate audience that you developed a unique solution to a problem or need, just as you did routinely during your laboratory research.

Thinking of transferable skills can often be a daunting task, especially when you are applying for jobs that seem way out of your league. But take a moment and really look at the job description. Have you used those “required skills” in the lab before? You probably have, so convince those hiring managers that you can make the connection.

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Author: Caleb McKinney

Caleb McKinney
Caleb McKinney is Assistant Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Training and Development for Biomedical Graduate Education at Georgetown University Medical Center.