The CEO and co-founder of Smart Tribe, Beatrice Zatorska, spoke to Dr Shikta Das, a data scientist, epidemiologist, mentor, and keynote speaker, about the necessity of the industry understanding academics’ highly transferable skills and the positive impact of hiring more academics such as scientists in different roles across the whole organisation or companies.
Shikta has been a notable speaker of academics’ transferable skills for long. She has not only spoken on this subject but also written about it and taken part in many discussions in the industry and academia networks. She has had a successful academic career in life science and has recently started to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies and start-ups to develop tech for the healthcare sector. Her transition from academia to pharma was sudden, and she was not prepared for it.
‘I was really shocked at the wrong assumptions people in the industry have about academics’, says Shikta. ‘The common understanding of academics is that they have narrow skills. I was recruited for my coding skills, and they believed that that was all that I was able to do!’
It was that moment of realisation that led Shikta to decide that she must educate the industry about the true worth of academics and the value of their highly transferable skills, which they bring to companies along with their expertise on particular subjects.
At Smart Tribe, we have identified nearly 30 different transferable skills that academics have that are extremely useful for the companies in the industry. These skills might be overlooked by academics and are thus not highlighted in their CVs.
The resumes of PhDs often include long lists of their research papers, which cannot be understood by the people in charge of hiring in the industry, and therefore, these candidates are often ignored. During their research work, academics are trained to be well organised.
Furthermore, they learn diverse ways of thinking and acquire project management skills. While conducting research, they need to know how to work independently, as well as with diverse and international teams. They need to have an entrepreneurial mindset. They often acquire commercial acumen while still in university as they undertake projects with companies and solve real-world problems.
‘In my 20 years of academic and now industry career, we always have to work in teams. We need to have an expert on different subjects to make sure we are going into the right directions, but our work is an outcome of a team effort’, confirms Shikta.
So why does the industry fail to recognise the great skills academics can offer to companies?
‘That’s the biggest struggle because PhD coursework is formatted in a way which is difficult to understand by anyone outside of academia. That is one of the major flaws of the design of academia. But it is changing now, and the new generations of PhDs have a different mindset; they follow industry trends, they interact with companies more frequently, and they also have better opportunities to become entrepreneurs; so many start-ups come from academia nowadays. Still, I would argue that academia should do more in changing the ways of communication with the world outside of academia and become more approachable.’
The lack of recognition of the transferable skills that are acquired through academia and which might be necessary to undertake roles in companies, along with the association of academics with esoteric language, create an image of a student rather than a professional.
As a result, PhDs end up in junior roles although they are qualified to take on more complex and senior roles. ‘PhD should be recognised as a professional qualification,’ continues Shikta. ‘Someone who spends between three to six years working on solving a problem, investing so much time and money, should be recognised as a professional and subsequently should be offered adequate, more senior positions rather than entry-level roles.’
Big tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon understand the value of academics’ transferable skills quite well. Google, in fact, encourages the culture of research, especially as it had started out as a research project.
Shikta can be considered a very good example of an academic who has realised the opportunities the industry can offer to a scientist: ‘I have been working with data science for the past decade, but I never imagined that I could ever work for companies like Google or Microsoft because I had no idea they employ academics. The only reason I never approached them before was because I thought they are commercial companies, so we do not have so much in common. But in the last two years in particular, I have seen a surge of companies coming to recruit PhDs. Last year, I went for an event where all those great tech companies were presenting their research in life science, and I was so nicely surprised that we have so much in common.
‘Immediately, I could see myself contributing as a scientist. With my mix of transferable skills and deep knowledge of data science in healthcare, I find myself very relevant to the industry and able to help in developing future technologies and products. Scientists are able to revolutionise product development not only because of their expertise in the scientific field but also because of the mix of expertise and transferable skills they have’.