March 11, 2019

Soft Skills

Posted by srauch

Getting Hard Data on Your Soft Skills

When planning your career, one of the biggest parts is your skill set.  What do you have to sell to a potential employer?  What kinds of things are you able to do?  Do you have specific examples of times you used those skills, and had a positive outcome?

In school, you learned many technical skills, including things like cartography, remote sensing, demography, data acquisition methods, paleontology, and so on.  Identifying your technical skills is usually fairly easy.

But what about your nontechnical skills?  Often called soft or transferrable skills; these are skills that apply not only to technical careers but can be transferred to a wide variety of possible career paths.  Examples include things like time management, relationship building, fiscal management, project management, and leadership.  Many of these skills are acquired on the job, without formal training.  Sometimes, you try something new, and turn out to enjoy it and to be good at it. Sometimes, you realize you’ve been doing something for a while, and actually enjoy it very much and would like to make it a bigger part of your career.

For example, one important nontechnical skill is communication.  You have been communicating all your life, but may never have thought about how you communicate information.  Have you given oral presentations to other scientists?  Were they formal presentations or informal?  Which do you enjoy more and which are you better at?  Maybe you don’t like making oral presentations, but written communication is more your style.   What kinds of written communication have you done – journal articles?  SOPs? Reports?  Are you better at communicating with other scientists or at explaining science to non-scientists?  Taking the time to think about your own transferrable skills and how they have changed over time, can provide valuable insights into your future career options.

Sometimes it’s hard to identify where you excel.  Things that come easily to you don’t seem like they are important, because they’re easy.  But while a particular skill may come easily to you, it probably does not come easily to everyone, so you can use that to your advantage.

One way to identify your transferrable skills is to ask your colleagues what they think you are good at.  What types of things do they ask you to help with?  Are you the person that everyone asks to edit their papers, because you are so good at finding the mistakes or improving the writing?  Are you the only person who can fix the lab equipment when it breaks down?  Or are you the peacemaker, the one who is able to get everyone to get along?

If you need help getting started, there are some useful resources.

  • The Geoscience Career Master’s Preparation Survey  found that geology students excel at making visual presentations, teamwork, and public speaking. The non-technical skills most wanted by non-academic organizations were found to be writing, critical thinking, problem solving, time management, adaptability, and ethical practices.  In geography, students’ skills were more analytical, including problem solving skills, critical thinking, quantitative, and computer and technology skills. Non-academic geographers’ most important skills include writing, critical thinking, problem solving, computer and technology skills, and time management skills.
  • The National Postdoc Association has compiled a list of the core skills that post-doctoral researchers should exhibit. (https://www.nationalpostdoc.org/page/CoreCompetencies)
  • The European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers created a report listing transferable skills and competencies that early career researchers might want to acquire (http://eurodoc.net/skills-report-2018.pdf).

A recent study examined 15 transferrable skills in science PhDs, including time management, data analysis, and managing others, and concluded that their education imparted a wide variety of transferrable skills, most of which were useful in both research-intensive careers and non-research-intensive careers. (Sinche M, Layton RL, Brandt PD, O’Connell AB, Hall JD, Freeman AM, et al. (2017) An evidence-based evaluation of transferrable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0185023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185023).

No matter what your professional background, you have acquired a wide variety of skills, many of which will be of value to potential employers.  Identifying your transferable skills, and determining which ones you want to market to potential employers, is a great way to take your career to the next level.

Lisa M. Balbes, PhD, has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for over 25 years.  She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).