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.

 

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Conferences, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

How to Be an Effective Student Leader

24. September 2013

Benjamin Franta

Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about leadership. What makes for a good leader? What makes someone effective at creating change?

Leadership is similar to other skills in that we learn it through a combination of imitation, trial and error and practice. Yet it is not as easy to assess as other abilities, because leadership can be found in many forms. There is no single standard by which to judge ourselves or others.
 
However, the best leaders whom I’ve known do have a few things in common; three in particular stand out:
 
1) Conceptual creativity that is also specific and linked to reality. This is often called “vision.”
 
2) The ability to identify, obtain and create resources, whether they are human, financial, technical or of some other nature.
 
3) The interpersonal and strategic skills necessary to execute the vision by making use of those resources.
 
How can we develop vision, resources and execution skills? There are many ways, including training, seeking new experiences, observing others and so on. Personally, one of the most useful methods I’ve found to build leadership is to cultivate certain habits that lead to positive outcomes. The most important of these are to:
 
Be honest in every interaction. Some people are effusive; others are terse. Regardless of style, honesty is the bedrock of a good leader. While it may sound easy, being honest means letting go of your fear of being judged. That can be difficult, and it takes practice.
 
Keep it simple. Great accomplishments happen one step at a time. As a leader, one of your jobs is to simplify complicated processes so that the people around you are more effective. Don’t expect to be thanked for this work; if you do it right, others won’t even be aware that you’ve done it. Nevertheless, it’s crucial for any team.
 
Don’t take (or give) anything personally. Sometimes others will not be able to help you, or your interests will clash with theirs. This is normal, and there’s no need for frustration or resentment. An effective leader doesn’t begrudge others following their own interests, even when it presents obstacles. Rather, you should strive to understand the goals and desires of others without judgment, and determine what constructive outcomes can be achieved for all involved.
 
These actions cultivate trust, promote the completion of goals, and preserve and develop positive and creative relationships. It’s important to remember that these are not inborn traits; they can be developed through conscious effort. Improvement requires practice, critical self-examination, and the will to keep trying and learning from mistakes.
 
What characteristics have you found to be important for effective leadership? Share them in the comments below!
 
Benjamin Franta is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics at Harvard University. He is the president of Harvard Photonics (Harvard’s OSA student chapter), an organizer for NanoStart (a new nanotechnology think tank at Harvard), and an executive board member of Divest Harvard (a climate activist campaign). He is also a Fellow of the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute.

 

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