Science Matters: The Sciences Require 'Soft Skills' Too

We all know that scientists who pursue advanced degrees like a Ph.D. are smart. They are driven. And they are no doubt passionate about their work. But can they cut it in the real world? Recent national media reports that debate the value of advanced degrees are shining a light on the need to have marketable skills that will work beyond the “ivory tower.”

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We all know that scientists who pursue advanced degrees like a Ph.D. are smart. They are driven. And they are no doubt passionate about their work. But can they cut it in the real world?

Recent national media reports that debate the value of advanced degrees are shining a light on the need to have marketable skills that will work beyond the “ivory tower.” Universities across the country are taking note, offering programs in a wide range of academic disciplines that not only infuse postgraduates with knowledge, but equip them with skills demanded by the spectrum of global industry.

In the science world, think of our ivory tower as the lab. This is where critical ideas unfold—where the value of scientists’ education and knowledge becomes clear as they work toward the goal of an isolated experiment or project.

But, as I’ve written extensively in this column before, the world of work— even in the science industry—is dramatically changing, and an advanced degree is only part of the message when it comes to marketing yourself in the increasingly flexible workforce. Scientists today must know how to navigate a multitude of seemingly non-science issues outside the lab, from company culture to social etiquette, in order to continue advancing their careers.

Acquiring and strengthening these so-called soft skills should be the number-one priority for scientists and other lab professionals in their search for the next job or promotion.

The struggles of those with Ph.D. degrees to transition from academia to industry demonstrate why.

As still happens too often, scientists with the highest credentials will present themselves to companies, thinking that their narrow focus and expertise in one area will be enough to land them a job. But they’ve remained risk-averse and have failed to become agile and flexible in the workplace.

From an absolutely technical perspective, this approach may be fine. Life sciences companies certainly value and seek out specialized knowledge. But the problems companies face in global business now demand that their workforce be much more versatile than that. This means companies are looking beyond candidates’ technical skills and academic credentials for evidence that they can successfully integrate themselves into the big picture.

For example, companies will want to know if you understand the unique business issues behind their goals and how your work would contribute to reaching those goals. Scientific research in most settings, after all, is not simply an academic pursuit—it’s big business. So even if you’ve published 53 papers in the top scientific journals, the ultimate question from an organization’s point of view will always be: “How are you going to apply that knowledge to help us?”

Companies are also looking for someone who has the social skills to fit into the culture of the workplace, and who knows how to communicate effectively with colleagues to accomplish the task at hand. Social skills, however, remain a hurdle for many scientists. But as in most business environments, improving those skills will strengthen practically every aspect of your career.

Also know that because of the incredible pace of scientific research and advancement, employers want someone who can hit the ground running. That means knowing the current issues the company is going through and having the ability to transfer your skills and be as productive as possible in your new position.

Leaving the ivory tower is not as daunting as it seems. By taking the time to hone skills that are critical in virtually every industry, you’ll see your opportunities grow exponentially in the sciences.

Published In

Top 10 Management Skills You Need Magazine Issue Cover
Top 10 Management Skills You Need

Published: October 1, 2011

Cover Story

Top 10 Management Skills You Need

To progress in their careers, lab managers, particularly those in their first management assignment, need to develop new skills. Often they had little opportunity to do this while working full time at the laboratory bench. Yet these skills are critical to success in their new management assignment.