I often advise PhD students on career planning and the many options available to them in and out of academia. When I ask about specific skills, a lot of them focus only on their research/technical skills, i.e. “hard skills” such as genetics, cell biology, computer science, chemistry or pharmacology. When I inquire about “soft skills,” I am often met with looks of confusion. This blog provides a few examples of “soft-skills” to help scientists build and realize these important “other skills.”
A PhD student who works on a multi-disciplinary project team, e.g. a cell biologist who works with a biochemist, bioinformaticist, and pharmacologist to understand a disease pathway, must have good teamwork skills to be successful.
The same is true for a Ph.D. student who works on, or leads, a collaborative project with other labs in their institution or with outside academic labs, industry, or non-profit disease foundations. These experiences provide examples that can be shared with potential employers regarding how they successfully worked on a team, lead a team, and lessons learned throughout the process.
Written Communication skills
Many PhD students write documents, i.e. manuscripts, grants, review articles, and let us not forget the ever-popular thesis. While scientific communication is important, the ability to communicate with those outside your field of study is invaluable.
In fact, Albert Einstein is often credited with saying “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” To develop these skills, students can take the opportunity to write for different sources such as the school newspaper, the departmental newsletter, an industry association, disease foundation, or a personal blog.
Verbal Communication skills
Public speaking is a valuable asset for the career scientist. PhD students can build these skills through teaching, and speaking at conferences, departmental meetings, relevant societies and foundations and charity events. One should also take advantage of potential leadership roles in student organizations, as well as groups such as toastmasters.
Formal and informal networking opportunities abound, you just need to know where to look. Examples of formal networking opportunities include participation in student government, interest groups and clubs, and professional organizations. Some professional organizations even have student affiliates.
There are also many informal networking opportunities that one can take advantage of, including common interest, advocacy and charitable groups, industry organizations, and social and professional networking events. In fact, I would bet that there is a networking opportunity to be had just about every night of the week. You just have to be willing to seek it out, and more importantly get up the courage to attend and participate. You never know who you might meet. It’s truly up to you.
In today’s job market the hard skills are not always enough to get you into that perfect role. Employers are looking for people who are well rounded who have the right mix of both soft and hard skills. Take initiative to immerse yourself in opportunities to grow and develop. The effort will pay off.