Soft skills you already have, but are not aware of
Being a researcher brings with it mastery of many technical skills. If you are planning your next career step, do not forget about your soft skills!
Anyone who has ever written a resume or a cover letter knows the struggle. Coming from an academic background means that describing our technical skills is a fairly simple task.
Have you performed organic synthesis, protein purification, electron microscopy, or computational simulations? Reporting on these types of skills is rather easy. These experiences have measurable outcomes (maybe even certifications) and dates of when you took the course.
However, many positions, especially those that follow a PhD or postdoc, often require so-called soft skills. What are these, you ask? The list is quite long and includes such capabilities as communication, teamwork, mentoring, leadership, project management, negotiation, etc.
The first time I saw these terms on a job posting, I started panicking. Where was I supposed to acquire these skills? All I had time for was my research!
Do not panic, organize
Research, even though it might seem miles removed from a real-life job, is not so different.
All it requires is that you look at your daily tasks from a different perspective and rethink your research skills in terms of interpersonal contact.
First of all, every researcher has to work on their science projects. The most fundamental soft skill you already have is therefore project management.
It is you, after all, who performs experiments and measurements, analyzes the data, and sums up their interpretation. It is also you who identifies the stakeholders of your project and plans ahead to ensure all the work packages are finished on time, and that the project meets its deadlines.
You might have also learned that prioritizing some tasks over others is key to success. Moreover, scientists must often negotiate with their PIs, students, often even friends and family about their schedules, availability of instruments, and execution of experiments.
During the course of our research, we often encounter issues and difficulties. The key to overcoming them is to define the precise problems and identify their origins, analyze the available data, and consequently design a new work plan which implements your solution. Guess what? All of these described activities can be easily put on your resume as problem solving and data analysis.
Interpersonal skills and communication
Day-to-day research is not only about experiments and data. Communication represents one of the key attributes one must possess to work effectively, especially in a team.
We scientists are obliged to take part in group meetings, conferences and congresses, and present our work — both orally and visually. Just think about it: how many times have you had to hold a presentation in front of your whole group and face negative feedback and criticism? How many times have you had to try very hard to attract the interest of the big names present at the conference? Your presentation skills definitely cannot be left out when thinking about your soft skills.
Among many other tasks, a researcher is expected to teach. This task is important not only because of the transfer of your knowledge — if this were the case, we would be well off with books only.
A good teacher is a great leader and an even better mentor. Explaining complex science in a way that every single student in your class understands demands the skill to adjust the communication technique for each student separately. These attributes take long to master and should therefore be highlighted on your resume.
Scientific writing and information management
The ability to identify information sources applicable for different problems represents the key for the advancement of each project. The ability to organize and evaluate the enormous amounts of available data, both our own and of other research groups, requires scheduling regular “reading time” and finding a way to browse it effectively. Scientists therefore often use scientific search engines (SciFinder, Scopus, Reaxys, Web of Science) to access relevant literature and new trends.
When thinking about our abilities, we should not omit the excessive writing each scholar has to endure. Those numerous abstracts for conferences, project reports, and peer-reviewed articles require a very specific writing style.
One must first analyze all the available data, put them into perspective, and use logic and great argumentation to explain the story behind them.
Moreover, every researcher can write on all levels, from very short abstracts and concentrates to communications, full articles, and ultimately, the thesis, book chapters, and grant proposals. Most of us can even prioritize well and apply great self- and time management when organizing all the different tasks around our writing. Even if this was not the case at the beginning of your lab experience, your performance gets better and better the longer you stay in an academic institution.
Make time for improvements
One side note for presenting your skills on your resume: Make sure not to only list them, but also to explain and prove them . Ergo, instead of only stating that you have experience in project management, be more specific and explain the type of your project, the duration, and its outcome (high impact peer-reviewed publication, patent, improved method, etc.).
And remember, no one is born a master. If this article helped you identify your weaknesses, make sure you take action and do something about it!
Are you unsure about your communication and presentation skills? Start applying for talks instead of poster presentations at future conferences. If you are feeling brave, sign up for your local science slam and practice!
Your research institute might already host a program for people interested in widening their soft skills portfolio. The University of Basel does an amazing job in offering these courses; make sure to have a look at the Transferable Skills courses.
You can learn how to improve your writing skills, how to advance your presentation skills, work on your communication techniques, negotiation skills, self-promotion and self-management, become a more efficient researcher thanks to time management, and even start creating beautiful conference posters.
There is a wide selection — just take the first step and pimp up your resume! Good luck!
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