How to Tell Your Advisor That You're Leaving Academia

28. August 2014

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D. 

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

Many people enter into a Ph.D. program or postdoctoral fellowship thinking that they’ll be in academia forever. But for about 70 percent of trainees, this plan changes along the way. Sometimes it happens over a long period of time, and sometimes it happens quickly. Either way, their advisor is usually the last person to find out. Despite the changing culture, many advisors simply do not want their trainees to leave academia.

One of the questions that I've been frequently asked since joining Propel Careers is, “How do I tell my advisor I'm leaving academia?” For many people, the anticipation of this conversation is worse than any other conversation with their advisor.

I wish I could remember how I told my postdoc advisor, but I was too flustered to remember the details. I do, however, remember the outcome–thankfully, I received understanding and support. I've had a number of years to look back on this experience and talk to others who've gone through it, and I’ve identified a few tactics that made this conversation easier.

Give enough notice
When you decide to leave academia, try to give your advisor enough notice to make him or her feel comfortable. Most Ph.D. students begin looking for a postdoc position about a year before graduating, so this would be a good time to tell them you plan to look for a different job.

Have a research plan in place
Present your advisor with an exit plan to ease any worries about you leaving the lab with unfinished experiments. Create a list of work left to do, along with a timeline and who you will hand tasks off to, if necessary. Include as much detail as possible!

Have a future plan in place
You may not know exactly what you want to do after leaving the lab, but hopefully you have an idea. Once you choose a career path, allow yourself enough time to assess your skillset and build any skills needed to transition into your new role. If this requires some time out of the lab, tell your advisor what your plans are, why they are important to your career development and how you will build the skills you need without interfering with finishing your research.

Don't present your choice as a bad thing
You may feel guilty or like you are disappointing your advisor. Even if you get a less-than-supportive response, it is important to stay positive. Present the news as an exciting career transition, NOT as a backup plan. The more self-reflection you do ahead of time and the more confident you are in your decision, the easier this will be. It's okay if it takes a little time to get to this point–just remember, this is your career, and you are in charge.

Make sure they know you value your training
Ph.D. and postdoc training is incredibly valuable. Even if it's not the experience you hoped it would be, you can’t get through without learning something. You want your advisor to feel that the training you received will not be wasted. Your technical abilities, communication skills, ability to collaborate and work with others, train junior colleagues, grasp complicated questions, think critically and see solutions are skills that will be useful in careers outside of academia.

Although research trainee success is still defined by many granting institutions as “success within academia,” this is changing. As you progress in your career, check in periodically with your advisor to update him or her on your successes. This way, you can be included in faculty boasting as the former trainee who “helped discover the cure for cancer while working on a team at X pharma,” or the former trainee who “developed a medical device used to diagnose X disease.” As a bonus for doing this, you may make it easier for your peers to have their own discussions with your mentor!

Jena Pitman-Leung, Ph.D., is a Career Development Consultant at Propel Careers and has been with Propel Careers since August, 2013. During her graduate studies at Northwestern University and postdoctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts Medical School she was the primary mentor of over a dozen undergraduate and graduate students; providing career advice, and training them to be independent scientists. Prior to joining Propel, Jena worked as a consultant at a Boston-area firm specializing in fatigue risk management in 24/7 industries.

 

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Nontraditional science careers, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs , , , , , ,

Effectively Personalizing Your Resume

26. August 2014

Arlene Smith

I recently attended a career-themed panel discussion at an OSA Topical Meeting. Scientists and engineers from industry and academia were represented in the panel and the audience, so this was a great opportunity to hear from both sides how to most effectively write a resume and cover letter. Here are some of the highlights.

Tailor your resume.
Some of the take-away points on the age-old issue of resume layout and content were perhaps unsurprising. The panel reiterated the importance of tailoring your resume to each job application, listing experience and skills relevant to the position to which you’re applying. Be selective! An application for an industry role doesn’t require an in-depth publication list; a list of “selected publications” related to the role is sufficient. This becomes increasingly important as you get more experience and your project and/or publication lists grow. First, list the experience that is most applicable to this job opening, then, if space allows, additional information can be included. For each prospective job, rank your achievements and experience in order of pertinence and build your resume from there.

Personalize your cover letter.
While the resume conveys that you fill the prerequisites for the role, the cover letter is where you can show your enthusiasm. For example, you might highlight the experience and skills that are relevant not only to this role, but to the company’s mission statement or to the academic department’s broader research goals. The panel expressed their frustration with the frequency of generic cover letters crossing their desks, so put in the time and effort to make yours stand out and show that you’re passionate about the position.

Consider your personal interests.
Just how important is the “personal interests” section of a resume? Does a prospective employer actually pay attention to your extracurricular activities? This section is typically very short and devoted to showing a bit of your personality in just a few words. Do you love team sports? Craft beers? Rebuilding your robot vacuum cleaner so it can fetch your paper and brew your morning coffee? If so, be prepared to talk about it.

A hiring manager with several years of interviewing experience highlighted how this seemingly innocent list of hobbies can prove an important topic during the interview, and can be a potential downfall for a candidate. If an interviewee professes a love for playing basketball in their spare time, this manager will inquire as to the air pressure level they use when pumping up the basketball. When the audience expressed their shock at this line of interview questioning, the hiring manager simply explained that, in his view, a technically-minded person would know this information, or at least possess the skills to give a good estimate.

So, do you like to lift weights at the gym? Do you like playing the latest Call of Duty game interactively via a Bluetooth headset? Do you play racquet sports or guitar? If so, it’s time to do your homework. Be prepared to explain why you chose to include those particular personal interests, and explain how they could relate to the job that you’re applying for. This is another opportunity to make yourself stand out and show how uniquely qualified you are for a position.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

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Helpful STEM Resources for Young Women

21. August 2014

On this blog and elsewhere, there has been considerable discussion of the dearth of women in STEM-related careers. A number of major tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and eBay, among others) recently released reports on the diversity of their workforces, and the results further reinforced the scope of this problem. The majority of employees at all of these companies are male: 70 percent at Twitter, 70 percent at Google, and 69 percent at Facebook. In spite of the advances being made by women and minorities, these fields continue to be dominated by white males.

Encouraging women and minorities to pursue STEM careers is a crucial step to increasing the diversity in the area, and there are a number of grassroots organizations currently working towards this goal. InformationWeek provided a helpful list of 12 such STEM resources. Take a look! 

You should also check out OSA’s Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA) program for information on our current initiatives to support women and minorities in optics and photonics. 

 

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Learning to Improve (and Enjoy) Your Public Speaking

20. August 2014

Antonio Benayas

Over the course of your career, one of the tasks you will likely face is speaking in public. This makes some people very nervous because the audience’s attention is focused solely on you. Public speaking is something you will learn to enjoy, not to fear. It doesn’t matter if you are describing research at your master’s degree examination, teaching undergraduate students, presenting results at a conference, or (hopefully someday!) giving a speech in Stockholm when receiving that prize—there are some universal steps that you can take to make any kind of public speech better and easier.

Define your topic: The first step is to decide exactly what you want to communicate to your audience. It’s okay to be ambitious in scope, but be sure that your ideas are clearly and concisely expressed. Your ultimate goal is to be understood, so quantity of concepts is far less significant than the quality and depth of your connection with the audience.

Prepare your script: Use a topic outline to structure your talk. At the beginning, this scaffold will be based mostly on your research and the list of facts you want to communicate. Gradually, as your talk evolves, you will also need to think about how the concepts and ideas you are going to present can best be delivered to the audience.

Think visually: There is much to be said on the topic of presentation visuals, but keep in mind that images or graphs are usually preferable over words. The rule “six per six but never thirty-six” means that you can have six lines or sentences on a slide, each composed of six words or less, but you should never reach both upper limits on the same slide. Practice, practice, practice: It’s natural to be nervous before facing an audience, especially if the crowd is made up of experts in your field. You can fight your fears by becoming completely comfortable with your talk and its contents well in advance. The only way to do this is to practice frequently. This might seem tedious; but I promise it is perfectly possible to enjoy the training process. Pay attention to how much your performance improves and your confidence increases with practice.

Get advice from others: It is always a good idea to practice your presentation in front of friends and colleagues and ask them for their honest advice. Their feedback will be invaluable for polishing your performance (tone of voice, pacing, body language, etc.) and the structure of your talk. You can adjust your script based on their input.

Be yourself: You likely admire speakers who connect with the audience and make a lasting impression. Try to identify the characteristics that make this speaker so good, and then think about how you can adopt or develop these features for your own presentations. However, you should try to find YOUR personal style as an outstanding public speaker. Don’t just imitate good speakers—use them as models for how to accomplish specific goals. There is no need to practice up until the last minute before your talk. Relax and enjoy your moment in the spotlight. Remember that everyone in the audience has almost certainly been in your shoes, and they are there to see you succeed.

Antonio Benayas Hernandez (antonio.benayas@emt.inrs.ca) is an Eileen Iwanicki postdoctoral fellow (CIHR-BCSC) at Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université du Québec, Canada. He completed his Ph.D. in Physics in the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. During his Ph.D. he participated in several international research projects at Heriot Watt University, UK, Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil, and University of Pittsburgh, U.S.A. He also worked for Galatea Consultores S.L. as a junior consultant for aerospace industries. His current research is focused on fluorescent nanoparticles for biomedical applications, nanothermometry and thermal imaging.

 

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Bright Futures Q&A: Anna Garry

30. July 2014

OPN: Tell us a bit about your current position and how you got there.

I work at ETH Zurich for a Swiss National Science Foundation-funded network whose research focus is on molecular and ultrafast science and technology. My job is to develop scientific outreach, which includes working toward the advancement of women scientists through equal opportunities, education and communication.

I have a biology degree, which included courses in the history, philosophy and politics of science. I also have a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on the politics of the nuclear industry, and I have worked on education projects at the university level. My job enables me to contribute to a topic I care about deeply: linking the scientific world to the society that supports it.
 
OPN: You work with Ursula Keller and Anthony Johnson on OPN’s “Reflections in Diversity” column. In particular, you’ve coauthored several columns on efforts at ETH Zurich to advance the status of women scientists. What first got you interested in these issues?
 
I have always been interested in the status and visibility of women and minorities in all fields, whether it is science, politics or the general academic community. Historically, Western society was structured to exclude women from voting, owning property and working outside the home. Much has improved in recent decades, but the low number of women in science and engineering persists. I was very interested in working on this complex issue with Ursula Keller, the director of our network.
 
OPN: There has been some significant progress for women in the workplace—enough so that some seem to view the problem of gender discrimination as “solved.” How would you assess the progress that’s been made, and the challenges that women still face, in building scientific careers in particular?
 
Enormous progress has been made for women in the workplace in terms of rights, opportunities and childcare. There are three issues that have not yet been resolved. First is the very low number of women studying the STEM fields, and the subsequent non-retention of these graduates in scientific careers. It makes economic sense to do all we can to improve STEM work environments to retain talented women and minorities.
 
A second issue is the dearth of women in leadership positions in all areas of science, engineering and industry. Having greater diversity in leadership would increase the range of viable strategies to address the gender imbalance.
 
Finally, there’s still an unconscious gender bias in our culture. Three recent studies--from the Columbia Business School, MIT, and Yale-- have shown that both men and women, whether they are in academia or in industry, favor male candidates over female candidates for appointments, mentorships, salary increases, etc., even when their qualifications are the exactly the same.
 
OPN: Your contributions to OPN have stressed the importance of role models and personal engagement, and events that get women speaking with women. Why is this so important? Do you have any advice on how people can help to combat gender discrimination?
 
Being a member of a minority group in science can be a very isolating experience that leads to self-doubt about your place in the scientific community. Networking can counteract this and encourage retention and career advancement.
 
Another important way to combat gender discrimination is for women and men to talk and listen to each other in a genuine attempt to cultivate mutual understanding and change. It’s vital to recognize that there are male scientists who have a commitment to bringing about progress in this area, and work with them to bring about solutions. For example, there are many young couples who both have careers in science and are finding ways to make a dual-career situation successful.
 
OPN: Could you tell us about a role model that’s been particularly important to you in your work, or in thinking about these issues?
 
It’s hard to choose a single role model, because when you want to change society it needs to happen on multiple levels. The writer Virginia Woolf is one of my many role models. She put into words, in works like “A Room of One’s Own” and “Three Guineas,” the changes needed in society to enable women to have space to think, work outside the home, and be taken seriously. Another is Nelson Mandela, for showing how one person’s life and actions can bring phenomenal political change to a seemingly intractable situation.
 
OPN: If you were given absolute power, and had free rein to do one thing to advance the place of women in the scientific enterprise, what would it be? What do you think would be the most effective change?
 
This question was very difficult for me, because I don’t believe anyone should be given absolute power! Effective change has to be based on a political consensus to increase the number of women in science, and value their intellectual and economic contributions to creativity and innovation in the area.
 
However, for the sake of discussion, if I had free rein to do one thing I would require a minimum of 30 percent representation of women on university executive boards, research and departmental committees, and boards of directors. I would bring together committed male and female scientific leaders and task them with creating an effective blueprint for achieving this target representation, along with a program to implement the changes.
 
Bringing more women into leadership roles has already begun to make a difference. In 2013 the United Kingdom’s Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, announced that the National Institute for Health Research would only award research funding to medical schools if they held a “Silver” Athena Swan Award. As a result, UK universities and their medical schools signed up to the established award system, which assesses standards for employing and retaining women scientists. Leaders in the scientific community need to support and promote the presence of more women at the leadership level to increase the pace of change.
 
For more information on other initiatives in this area, you can check out the IOP Juno Awards, NSF’s ADVANCE Project, the APS’ Women in Physics, and OSA’s MWOSA.
 

Anna Garry is the Outreach Officer for the Swiss research network NCCR MUST (National Centre for Competence in Research, Molecular Ultrafast Science and Technology), ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

 

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How to Use Your Business Card

21. July 2014

Arti Agrawal

“Here’s my card.” How often is this sentence uttered at conferences, meetings and other networking events? The ubiquitous business card is a marvelous thing, and its repertoire of functions is expanding beyond just providing your basic contact information.
 
Make an impression.
The first time I saw a card with a long string of letters after the name, I was bemused. What do all of those acronyms mean? Why are they included? That’s when I realized that this rectangular piece of paper can be more than a convenient way to give someone your email address. Increasingly, business cards are becoming miniature CVs: some cards list every degree the person has acquired (and perhaps even where they were earned) and all of their professional affiliations.
 
When you state on your business card that you are a member or fellow of a professional organization, or are chartered in your profession, you relate key achievements, abilities and your professional standing to the reader. You are starting to sell yourself before you give someone a full CV. Presenting someone with your card is a way to both inform and impress, and including some additional details can help you stand out from the get-go.
 
Strike the right balance.
But how much additional information about your qualifications is appropriate to include on your card? Is this the proper context for telling people where you did your undergraduate degree many moons ago, or to which institutions you pay a yearly membership fee? It’s important to strike a balance between providing the a few key details to catch the right person’s eye, and inundating readers with unnecessary and possibly incomprehensible information. Do some research on what is standard in your profession, and look at the card carefully to be sure that it’s not difficult to read. Regardless of what you decide to include, the card should be simple and easy to decipher.
 
Be careful with acronyms.
Certain acronyms and abbreviations can provide valuable information for those in a specific field, but for others, they can be befuddling. For example, within the U.K. physics community, “FInstP” signifies being a Fellow of the Institute of Physics. But to someone outside of the country or the field, it might make no sense at all. Listing “SMOSA” on a card may lead some readers to think of the fried Indian snack of samosas, but the intention is to state that the card owner is quite distinguished and is a Senior Member of the Optical Society! Choose your acronyms with care, and be ready to explain them.
 
A card can’t convey context, so you can’t depend on it alone to get your message across. However, when used correctly, a business card can provide a valuable snapshot of your professional life. Use your card to grab someone’s attention, and then follow up by filling in the details.
 
Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London, U.K., in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

 

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Three Simple Steps to Networking Success

10. July 2014

Arlene Smith

I want to address a topic that is almost essential for career progression but can strike fear in an introvert’s heart: networking. Although it may feel like you’re the only one who gets nervous in networking situations, you’re not alone. Everyone fears rejection or embarrassment, but you don’t need to be afraid!

If speaking with your optics idol or asking a question makes you queasy, the following approach can quell your fears. I urge you to try it out.

1. Make your approach
The first step is deciding how to approach someone and begin a conversation with him or her. If you are in a panel session, approach a speaker and say, "I have a question and I would like to hear your thoughts." This shows the panelist that you value his or her opinion.

 If you are in an informal networking situation, try approaching a group and simply asking, "May I join you?" Remember, networking is about meeting new people. They want to meet you, too.

When deciding who to approach and how, ask yourself, "What’s the worst thing that could happen?" The very worst possibility is that the panelist or group isn't friendly, in which case you just move on. A better question to ask is, "What’s the BEST thing that could happen?" If you don’t put in the effort, you could miss out on great opportunities.

2. Have a conversation
After introducing yourself to someone and exchanging basic information, start asking him or her questions. I estimate that 90 percent of networking is showing interest in other people, so be sure to focus on the person to whom you’re speaking. Sometimes conversation flows naturally, but other times it might take more effort. Here are some good questions to get a dialog started: 

What are you currently working on?
• What result do you expect to see?
• What has challenged you?
• What has been your biggest success?
• Is there anyone here you hope to meet?

3. Follow up
When it is time to move on, exit the conversation by simply saying, "It was nice to speak with you. May I have your business cards/emails? I need to see a few more people today, but we should get in touch." Make sure to follow up:

• Write down a relevant detail from the conversation as soon as possible. This will help you remember the conversation and reconnect with that person later.
• Within two days, make contact and mention a specific point that you discussed. If you meet a lot of people, prioritize your list and contact the individuals you deem most likely to be helpful first. Contact the others at a later time.
• Make an effort to keep in contact with important people. Don't let them forget about you.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

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What is the Purpose of Your Research?

25. June 2014

Carlos Hernández-García

What are you investigating? What can it be used for? Scientists are often asked these questions. The answers may be easy for those doing applied research; but what about those doing fundamental research?

Since starting my research in ultrafast laser science at the University of Salamanca, Spain, my friends and family have been asking me these kinds of questions. At first I supplied quick answers that could immediately satisfy their queries, like “lasers will help us to treat tumors,” or “lasers will improve communications.” While true, my answers had little to do with my research of strong field laser-matter interactions. But how can I justify following the dynamics of fancy electrons as they are ionized from atoms and travel with different behaviors? And, more importantly, do I need to justify it?
 
Scientists doing fundamental research try to discover and explain phenomena in nature regardless of their work having immediate technological applications. In today’s tech-savvy world, many people undervalue fundamental research. I believe judging scientific work, theoretical or experimental, by utility alone is unwise. Scientific discovery is, in itself, important enough that it does not need to be justified. Like other non-applied disciplines, such as art, fundamental research is largely motivated by the desire to observe the beauty of the world.
 
Great scientific breakthroughs can arise from simultaneous discoveries in fundamental and applied research. But sometimes it takes years for fundamental research to advance the field enough to allow useful applications to evolve. One of the most obvious examples of this is Albert Einstein’s research. Over 100 years ago, Einstein laid the foundations of quantum physics—a groundbreaking theory based on mathematical principles. I doubt that he could have imagined that his theory would become the foundation for the creation of the laser. Without Einstein’s fundamental discoveries, we would not have the Internet, DVDs, laser printers or refractive surgery, nor any of the other applications made possible by lasers.
 
Wolfgang Ketterle, 2001 Nobel laureate in Physics, said:
 
"You can say two things about investing in fundamental research. You don’t know how it will pay off. But you can be absolutely confident that it will pay off, handsomely, because in one way or another it always has.” 1
 
Fundamental research does not need to have an immediate applied purpose. Research gives us knowledge that enriches the human condition—this alone motivates countless numbers of scientists every day. Like Einstein, they may not see direct technological applications from their research; but their contributions to the field will enable scientists in the future to make technological breakthroughs.
 
1 Extracted from the interview: “The truth about the universe
 
I’d like to acknowledge Prof. Luis Plaja and Dr. Ricardo Torres for fruitful discussions on this topic.
 
Carlos Hernández-García is a postdoctoral Marie Curie fellow at JILA, University of Colorado (USA). He completed his Ph.D. in Physics in the University of Salamanca, Spain. His research is focused on strong field physics, ultrashort laser sources and attosecond to zeptosecond science. Carlos writes a blog in Spanish about attosecond science.

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Pursuing Science in South Africa

19. June 2014

Yaseera Ismail

I have worked and studied at South African universities since beginning my undergraduate degree. I started my research career at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of 10 national research facilities, and I am currently based in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Here, I will reflect on some of my experiences studying in South Africa.

Freedom of choice

One benefit of attending university in South Africa is the unique structure of the degree system. The arrangement is unusual in that there are four exit points during the completion of three degrees. We start off with a three-year Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree, followed by a year of honors studies. The masters and doctoral degrees begin after the honors year. If you are not pursuing a career in research, you have the option of completing your education after earning a B.Sc. This allows students to tailor our honors year material to the research area we wish to pursue during our M.Sc. and Ph.D., and so we are more prepared and focused when beginning those higher-level degrees.

Availability of resources and funding

South Africa has a growing scientific community, but the opportunities for collaboration and networking are still limited. This can impact the level of research and the growth of facilities taking place in the country. If you are trying to build a research group, it may take more effort and time than other places. However, the lack of certain resources encourages us to look elsewhere for necessary expertise. This helps us build relationships with researchers across the globe. There is also funding available to promote and host national and international conferences, and there are extensive online resources to help fill any gaps.

A prerequisite for registering for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree at any South African university is a source of funding for the duration of your studies. Most candidates are awarded a scholarship either by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation or national facilities such as the CSIR. The South African government recently set a target of spending 1.5 percent of its budget on research and development by 2018. Funding is also provided by universities such as UKZN, which has its own scholarship program.

Networking opportunities

I have been fortunate enough to attend 22 academic conferences since completing my M.Sc. Conferences are excellent platforms to grow within your field and expand your network of colleagues and friends. There is one major national physics conference in South Africa, known as the South African Institute of Physics Conference. It is hosted annually by various institutes and is currently in its 59th year. My research group also hosts the Quantum Information Processing Communication and Control (QIPCC) Conference each year. This meeting is focused on quantum optics and information science, and is an initiative of the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.

Joining professional associations is also a great way to network, and there are several options in South Africa. The South African Institute of Physics is a prominent association for researchers. It has student memberships and provides discounts for student conferences. There are also three OSA Student Chapters: Durban, Pretoria and Stellenbosch. I am part of the newly formed Student Chapter at the UKZN, Durban. Since we joined OSA, we have had numerous avenues opened to us. I recently attended an IONS conference in Montreal, Canada, which was a wonderful experience for me and gave me lots of ideas for growing our Chapter at UKZN.

As a South African student, networking opportunities and the increasing availability of resources have played a major role in expanding my opportunities as a young researcher. I am happy to be contributing to the developing community of scientists in my country.

Yaseera Ismail completed her masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in quantum communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

Academic careers, Career, Conferences, Graduate school, International careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

Building Your “Soft Skills”

5. June 2014

Lauren Celano

This post was adapted from content on the Propel Careers website and BioCareers.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

I often advise Ph.D. students on career planning and the various job options available to them. When I ask them to discuss their specific skills, many of them focus only on their research and technical skills. These are “hard skills,” such as genetics, computer science, chemistry or pharmacology. When I inquire about “soft skills,” I am often met with looks of confusion. Below are a few examples of “soft skills” that can help scientists become well-rounded job candidates in many different fields.

Teamwork
A Ph.D. student who works on a multi-disciplinary project team, for example, a cell biologist who works with a biochemist and a pharmacologist to understand a disease pathway, must have good teamwork skills to be successful. The same is true for someone who works on or leads a collaborative project with other labs in and outside of their institution, industry partners and foundations. These experiences provide examples that can be shared with potential employers to illustrate how one successfully worked on or led a team and learned through the process of working with others.

Non-Technical Writing
Many scientists are accustomed to writing manuscripts, grants, review articles, and of course, the ever-popular thesis. While this type of 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 make an effort to write for different sources, such as the school newspaper, departmental newsletter, association publication or a personal blog.

Verbal Communication
Public speaking is a valuable asset for the career scientist. Students can build this skill through teaching and speaking at conferences, departmental meetings, association conferences, as well as foundation and charity events. One should also take on leadership roles in student organizations and associations (for example, OSA Student Chapters) as well as groups such as Toastmasters.

Networking
Formal and informal networking opportunities are everywhere; you just need to know where to look. Examples include participation in student government, technical interest groups and clubs and professional and industry organizations. Some professional organizations even have student affiliates.

More generally, you can find networking avenues are through common interest, advocacy and charitable groups, 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, gather the courage to attend and participate. You never know who you might meet—it’s truly up to you.

In today’s job market, hard skills are not always enough to get you into that perfect role. Employers are looking for “the whole package”: people who have the right mix of both soft and hard skills. Take the initiative to immerse yourself in opportunities to grow and develop in new directions. The effort will pay off.

Lauren Celano (lauren@propelcareers.com) is the co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences companies.

 

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