Many employers think that PhD students often lack ‘soft’ skills such as being able to communicate well, according to a new report from the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills (see ‘Survey shows science graduates neglect career planning’ for other findings). One of the report’s authors, Robin Mellors-Bourne from the Careers Research & Advisory Centre, says a lot of employers are sceptical that PhD candidates will fit in. “They’re deemed almost to be too specialised,” he says. Christine McCary, the employment concerns chair of the US National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) and a full-time PhD student at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, says the situation is similar in the United States. So what can you do to improve your soft-skill set?
Science careers consultant Sara Shinton, of UK-based Shinton Consulting, says PhD students should always be proactive about developing their soft skills because of the high number of people being awarded postgraduate qualifications. “It’s like it used to be with [an undergraduate] degree,” she says. “A PhD on its own isn’t enough. You are going to be competing against people with the same baseline.”
Stand out from the crowd
Shinton’s advice is to look for unusual activities that will make your communication skills stand out from the crowd, such as being a representative on a committee for a professional body. “That’s not something everybody can do,” she says. It’s also something that will get an employer’s attention – in a recent survey of graduate employers, researchers from Oklahoma State University found having a leadership position in an academic organisation comes second only to the personal interview in importance for showcasing your communication skills.
Shinton says you should join the society or association first, and then get involved at a local level to raise your profile. Just being a young scientist can also help. “The voice of the young researcher at the front line is one that most professional bodies are very keen to hear from,” she says.
McCary says another way to stand out is to take a leadership role in your local community, for example by starting a science club for younger students. If you succeed, she says, “that would be direct evidence of your ability to communicate with people”.
Another major plus is showing initiative by making something happen that wouldn’t have otherwise, such as arranging your own scientific roadshow or conference, or setting up an informal journal within your university.
Remember to cover the basics
That’s not to say you can forget about the more traditional ways of developing communication skills, such as getting involved in outreach – Shinton says companies now expect to see this as standard on a candidate’s CV or résumé. “It’s worth doing on every sort of imaginable level,” she says, “but it isn’t something that an employer would highlight.”
And the basics include getting to grips with social media websites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. “These days every single scientist should have [a LinkedIn profile], even while they’re a student,” says McCary.
Get outside the box
Both Mellors-Bourne and McCary advocate developing your skills outside of academia. “Spending some time with different people or in a different environment is very valuable,” says Mellors-Bourne. “Even academic employers are looking for well-rounded people to work for them,” adds McCary. Shinton, however, cautions against this approach if you intend to stay in research: “It very much depends what your career trajectory is. If you intend to be a scientist, showing that you are having an impact in lots of different ways as a scientist possibly has more value.”
All three agree that studying overseas can be a boon for your communication skills. “The whole experience of overseas study strengthens you as an individual,” says Shinton. “It challenges you and it helps you to grow.” Mellors-Bourne spent four months in the United States as part of his PhD, which he found to be a life-changing experience: “I restarted my research afterwards with a completely different view of the world.”
Have your say
Do you have any other tips to add? Have you found a particular approach or method to be more effective than others? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.