Team work and good communication are the two most valuable soft skills an academic can develop, says Elizabeth Silva.
Contributor Elizabeth Silva
PhDs commonly assert that their skills and experience are specific to their research niche: valuable at the bench but nowhere else. This perception is reinforced by the extraordinary time spent trouble-shooting experiments and analyzing data in detail. It is certainly true that any PhD moving away from academic research will need to learn new techniques or tools, referred to as hard skills, but most trainees are well-equipped to acquire these as needed. More important is the recognition that the real worth of a research-based PhD is in the development of highly-valued soft skills. It is these skills that many PhDs fail to see in themselves. It is also these skills that PhDs can and should be cultivating during their research, regardless of career goals.
At its best, a PhD selects for creative, rigorous and independent thinkers. A PhD’s greatest training is not in learning the details of a scientific problem but in how to find the answers they seek and critically evaluate the evidence underlying them. It is up to you, as a trainee, to actively seek opportunities to improve these skills, and these abound when you simply look for them at conferences, in journal clubs, in collaborating with colleagues, engaging in seminars and in broader scientific one-on-one conversations. It can be incredibly tempting to narrowly focus your attention on the science and techniques that are relevant to your research niche, but pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone will make you a better researcher and a more valuable employee.
Communication and teamwork
Two soft skills that most PhDs seek to specifically hone also represent two of the biggest areas of adjustment for PhDs moving away from academia: communication and teamwork. PhDs have many opportunities to improve these skills. Be sure to take the opportunity to practice this communication through posters presentations, journal clubs and seminars. Participating in community outreach programmes that connect students and postdocs with various sectors of the public provides the opportunity to improve communication with non-scientists. Equally, academic researchers must frequently work with colleagues for the purposes of collaboration and a collegial academic lab should operate as a team.
Be aware that cultivating your skills in these ways can only take you so far. Communicating your work is not equivalent to communicating with a team made up of diverse backgrounds, broad expertise and experiences.
Academia selects for certain personality types: people who are swayed by data-driven arguments, are precise, and willing to engage in constructive criticism. At the same time, traditional academia most highly values the independent problem-solver. When confronted with the need to apply a new technique, a PhD is rewarded for seeking out the information or the expertise needed to find the right solution and for doing it without external help. All of these are highly- valued skills in academic and non-academic environments.
Outside of academia however, you’ll work with people with different backgrounds and communication styles than you encounter in academia. It’s important to recognize that success in any field requires recognition that each person’s style, experience and background (including yours!) has its strengths and weaknesses.
Emotional intelligence quotient
Understanding and effectively navigating the different ways that professionals communicate and work is the basis for the “emotional intelligence quotient” (EQ). A “high” EQ is a trait that is increasingly valued by employers. How can you boost your EQ, or your appreciation for other work and communication styles?
I suggest participating in a self-assessment workshop that relates to communication styles, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Some assert that such self-assessments lack rigor and reproducibility, but when undertaken in the spirit of revealing different perspectives and working styles they can be very powerful. They may be offered at your institution as a part of leadership or management training, where the test itself is coupled with a workshop that will help you dissect your results. Use this information to improve your teamwork and communication skills by considering your own tendencies, how they contrast with others, and the ways these differences influence your relationships with your colleagues. Practice everyday, and remember that in any non-academic environment it is more important to solve a problem faster by working as a team, than to demonstrate that you can do it on your own.
These skills aren’t just important for a smooth transition to a career outside of academia, they can help you now. By identifying the skills and knowledge that colleagues have to offer, and effectively working with them, you will be more successful regardless of your career path.