Soft Skills for Scientists

You’re a science Ph.D. seeking a job outside academe, but you’re not sure you have the requisite skills. The good news is you’re probably more prepared than you think. Nonacademic hirers want people who are self-starters and who can work independently. You already possess all of these skills, and more.

As a Ph.D. scientist, you’re capable of asking and answering important questions that build on current knowledge and advance our understanding of our world. You’re accustomed to coming up with and testing hypotheses, gathering and interpreting data, and communicating the results—both positive and negative. And you know how to manage a project, raise funds, and present your ideas at conferences. All of these skills are transferable to a number of professions outside academe, including industrial research, policy and think-tank work, business administration, and patent law.

What you may lack or need to improve, however, are “soft skills,” like understanding when to push forward and when to let others lead, how to work nicely with a team, how to analyze the politics of the workplace and respond appropriately, and how to explain technical material to a lay audience. Academe is an insular world, and conducting scientific research can be a relatively solitary endeavor, but in order to succeed in an industry job, you must be able to work and communicate not only with other scientists, but also with nonscientists.

It took me nearly a decade after graduate school, for example, to realize that nonscientists settle disputes differently than scientists. When two scientists disagree, each searches for data to support his/her view. The one with the better data wins, the loser concedes defeat, often with an enhanced sense of respect for the winner. That is not how the rest of the world operates. Many nonscientists, when proven wrong, react with anger, pride, and/or shame, and they may attribute those bad feelings to the winner.

So how do you settle a dispute outside the laboratory? With soft skills. Be nonconfrontational and try to understand the other person’s point of view.

How can you improve your soft skills? For starters, practice talking with nonscientists in nontechnical terms about what you do, how you do it, and how your research is broadly applicable beyond academe. Take a good hard look at yourself and how others react to you. Use your laboratory-honed skills of observation in professional and social interactions. Are others put off or frustrated by you? Do you think that you have been overlooked (by your adviser, or your department chair, or your dean) for an assignment or promotion? Have you asked for a favor (more space, less teaching) and had your request flatly denied? If so, you could be rubbing others the wrong way.

Carefully observe successful people you admire. How do they treat others? How do they respond to requests? Practice empathy. Always try to see any interaction through the other party’s eyes. Understand that most people do not behave rationally. Never aim for a total win—a scorched-earth policy will get you nowhere—in your interactions. The best results are win-win, where each party gets something s/he wants and gives on points of lesser personal importance. And finally, be kind to those in positions of less power. You may one day report to them.

Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the chief executive and a founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of weed control for turf and agriculture. She is writing a series of posts about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s in the sciences.

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