By Bethany Huot
Let’s start with a quote…
“If you are in charge of graduate or postdoctoral training or in a position to influence those that are, then please help them to find ways to incorporate active learning and development of “soft skills” along the way.” – Crispin Taylor –
We have been talking and writing about “Soft Skills” at The Pub Club for quite some time now, so I decided it was time to address them specifically. What they are, why they are important and why we should and must care.
As I studied the many sources of information used to support this post and worked on writing it up, I realized that it comes across as if “Soft Skills” are a new thing. While the term “Soft Skills” may be new, the abilities they encompass – communication, time management, organization and leadership – are not. Employers from any realm, knowingly or not, have always given preference to people who wrote a good cover letter (written communication), aced the interview (oral communication), took “Leadership” roles in school or previous jobs and more. What is new is that employers now list these abilities on job postings as both preferred and required qualifications.
Other terms previously used to describe these attributes are “Professional Development Skills” or “Transferable Skills.” I am not particularly fond of any of these terms. “Soft” suggests inferiority to “Hard” or technical skills, whereas “Professional” turns the insult around. As you will see in this post, both are equally important. As stated on SkillsYouNeed.com “the hard skills are a basic minimum necessary in order to operate in that particular workplace. Whether or not you are successful in your career may depend on how you relate to other people and to work: the so-called soft skills.” There’s also this 2014 study by CareerBuilder, which concluded the “Overwhelming Majority of Companies (77%) Say Soft Skills Are Just as Important as Hard Skills.” The term “Transferable Skills” doesn’t work for me either because it implies they just happen and we just have to know how to “transfer” them. While it is true that we may have skills that are “Transferable,” and we should know how to recognize and highlight them, a deliberate attempt must be made to attain them just like with “Hard Skills.”
So, before we dive into a post focused on “Soft Skills,” I want to start off by throwing out the terms and the distinctions and coin a new phrase: “Diverse Skills.” Diverse because some come easier to one person than they do to another and vice versa. Diverse because different jobs require more strength in some skills than in others. Diverse because “Hard” or “Soft” skills by themselves are not enough, they must be integrated and used in combination for maximum success. Diverse because the more Diverse your skill set, the more Diverse the opportunities you can pursue and successfully achieve. So, while we all know what technical skills are required to get the interview, we may not be as clear on what other Diverse skills are needed to complete our toolkit. The Diverse skills that enable us to knock their socks off at the interview and excel at the job once we are hired.
Who needs them?
In a Monster Jobs’ post, 6 soft skills everyone needs and employers look for, Larry Buhl wrote about a 2008 survey of 2,000 State of Washington businesses in which they reported applicants, “were lacking in several areas, including problem solving, conflict resolution and critical observation.” Monster Jobs speculated: “You’ll likely see these ‘soft skills’ popping up in job descriptions.” They also observed that: “Employment experts agree that tech skills may get you an interview, but these soft skills will get you the job—and help you keep it.”
While I now realize that “Diverse Skills” have always been an essential part of the “Community of Minds” concept and The Pub Club, it was only after reading a post in Plant Science Today written by Dr. Crispin Taylor back in November 2013, Career Opportunities for Plant Scientists, that I began to recognize them everywhere. Keeping a clean bench area builds our organizational skills, presenting at lab meeting or a seminar hones our oral communication skills, writing up a detailed lab protocol or manuscript develops our technical writing skills – the list goes on and on. Budgeting, Leadership, Adaptability, Critical thinking, Problem solving – opportunities to develop Diverse Skills are all around us. I also came to realize that what Larry Buhl had predicted was now reality. “Diverse Skills” are now being included in job postings, and the science community has identified them as an essential part of their and our future planning. For a great example of this future planning written by some of the top plant scientists, check out the detailed plan for T-training spelled out in the 5th chapter of Unleashing a Decade of Innovation in Plant Science: A Vision for 2015 – 2025.
Crispin points out in his post that “despite the zeitgeist that seems to dominate in many graduate programs, it is not all about preparing wannabe PI clones: the data clearly indicate that in the biological sciences, one in six PhDs” will find a job in academia. It has been my experience that 90% of biological scientists think they will be the “one” in the “one in six.” It is also my experience that, because of this, a large number believe “Soft Skills” are of less value or importance for them. They are wrong. This is true for the 16.6% who will get the academic job and the 83.4% who will find themselves in the non-academic arena. Those with “evidence of” “Diverse Skills” will move to the top of the pile and will make the short list of interview call backs no matter where you have applied.
To quickly disprove the theory that academe does not require “Diverse Skills” or that Diverse Skill training would be provided for those seeking faculty positions if they did, I provide the following. Pulled from job postings placed on the same day, by the same department, at the same University:
- Minimum Qualifications
- Ph.D. in molecular plant breeding, plant genetics/genomics, or plant molecular biology
- Postdoctoral and/or other relevant experience
- Evidence of ability to attract extramural support and lead an innovative research/breeding program
- Evidence of ability to work with other researchers in interdisciplinary inquiry
- Evidence of ability to teach and mentor
Postdoctoral Research Associate
- Duties & Responsibilities
- Molecular cloning and DNA sequencing (Sanger, Next-Gen) of badnaviral amplicons, bioinformatics, phylogenetic, recombination, and other relevant sequence analyses, primer design and validation, oligo design and optimization, develop infectious clones;
- Experimental design;
- Literature review;
- Preparation of reports, manuscripts, and presentation to communicate the results and conclusions;
- Regular communications in person and written.
Notice the “Assistant/Associate Professor” position’s Minimum Qualifications include: Postdoc and “Evidence of” leadership, ability to attract support (effective communication), work with other researchers (collaboration, inter-personal skills), teach and mentor. After the “Postdoc,” these minimum qualifications are all non-technical “Diverse Skills.” “Lead” obviously represents Leadership skills, but a good leader must possess other “Diverse Skills” as well. To Lead effectively you must have Organization, Time Management, Critical Thinking, Excellent Written and Oral Communication, Problem Solving, Conflict Resolution and Mentoring skills. Next, someone who cannot communicate clearly, in a way that relates to the participating parties, cannot “Attract” their support. Finally, we have Work With Others, Teach and Mentor. Again, while these are themselves “Diverse Skills,” they require additional “Diverse Skills” to achieve. Team Work, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, Communication, Creative Thinking, Time Management, Listening (not just hearing) and Adaptability are just a few of the “Diverse Skills” required to be a proficient Teacher or Mentor or successful in any form of Working With Others.
Now look at the Postdoc position. This is also one of the prerequisites for the Professor job, so does it train you in the “Diverse Skills” necessary to meet the Minimum Qualifications of this institution’s Assistant/Associate Professor position? It does require you to be able to communicate your science with other scientists, both in written and oral form, but what about an undergrad, new grad student or the rest of the world? Where are the “Duties and Responsibilities” that provide “Evidence of” Teaching, Mentoring, Leading and Ability to attract support? The name of the University is not supplied because this is not unique to them; they simply had the misfortune of posting these jobs at the same time causing them to line up in search results making it clearly evident the confusion over “Diverse Skills” most Universities have.
I provide the previous example for two reasons. One, for Universities to answer Crispin’s plea, “to find ways to incorporate active learning and development of “soft skills” into their educational system at all levels. Two, to make clear that not only are “Diverse Skills” required across the job spectrum, but that you can’t sit back and assume others will provide them. You must take ownership of your educational career and pursue them yourself.
What “Diverse” skills do you need?
In researching this important subject, I found articles and studies containing lists with anywhere from 8 to 87 defined “Soft Skills.” Separated into groups and classifications, internal and external, personal and professional, the “Soft Skill” waters can get a little muddy. I’m not suggesting that these lists are not conceived of the best intent or even that they are inaccurate. I am suggesting, however, that in the attempt to clarify it may have gotten a bit confusing. Notably apparent is that however far they are broken down, most all are or fall under the following… let’s call them: “The COM’s Top Ten Diverse Skills.” (Not in order of importance.)
- Organization/Asset Management (budgeting & inventory)
- Communication (written and oral)
- Critical Thinking
- Adaptability/Creative Thinking
- Time Management
- Team Work and Collaboration
- Conflict Resolution
- Mentoring and/or Teaching
In a study of 2.3 million LinkedIn members conducted for and written about in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) (The ‘Soft Skills’ Employers Are Looking For Aug 30, 2016), they found that of those changing jobs over a one year period, the most sought after “Soft Skills” were: “Communication, at the top of the list, … followed by organization, teamwork, punctuality, critical thinking, social skills, creativity, interpersonal communication, adaptability and having a friendly personality.” Mr. Berger, who ran the study, told The WSJ: “Workers who have those (Diverse) skills but aren’t advertising them should because it could help separate them from the pack of job candidates.” Mr. Berger then concluded: “People that have the right soft skills have a leg up in finding a job relative to their peers.”
What now? & Why not?
The case has been made. Again, as Crispin says: “Finding ways to ensure that developing these skills is baked into graduate programs and postdoctoral positions makes very good sense.” But if it makes very good sense there, then why just there? Wouldn’t an undergrad given opportunities to develop “Diverse Skills” do better as a Grad student? Why stop there? The U.S. Department of Labor has put out a program for ages 14 to 21 called “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills — Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” This program focuses on building “six key skill areas: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism.”
Should you wait for opportunities to be “baked in” before seeking them out? According to this 2014 national study, “College Doesn’t Prepare Students for Job Search,” the “top three attributes that companies are currently looking for are: a positive attitude (84%), communication skills (83%) and an ability to work as a team (74%).” The Study also reported “73% of hiring managers felt that colleges are only ‘somewhat preparing’ students for the working world. The biggest challenges facing hiring managers seem to be how the job seeker presents themselves – 36% of HR Pros reported that candidates are ‘unprepared’ and 33% said they have a ‘bad attitude’ when interviewing.” Having spoken with Crispin on more than one occasion, I am sure his intent is not to limit but rather to open the door that we and others might throw it open. I am also certain that he would not want you to wait for the opportunity to build “Diverse Skills” to come to you, but to seek opportunities out for yourself.
Can we validate Crispin’s conclusion that “Diverse Skills” should be “baked in” to higher education? After all, we cannot afford to waste any of our time! Let us first look at the NSF/NIH definition of a postdoc. In a letter published by the NSF in January 2007, they defined a postdoc as “an individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path.” In the letter they went on to state: “The definition, which emphasizes the importance of mentored training during the postdoctoral period, will be used for all postdoctoral scholars supported by funding from NIH or NSF.”
Now that we have established that the NSF and NIH agree with Crispin regarding the integration of “Diverse Skills” in the context of a post doc, let us next address the opinion that time spent developing “Diverse Skills” is a distraction from hard skill development and productivity. An article published in the American Institute of Biological Sciences, BioScience Magazine in Sept 2011 titled “Postdoctoral Training Aligned with the Academic Professoriate” challenged this theory. The study included two groups. The first was the traditional “independent research experience,” and the second was “designed to prepare postdoctoral scholars for the responsibilities of an academic career that balances both research and teaching.” Their conclusion? “The results showed that the research productivity of the postdoctoral scholars involved in the program was not statistically different from that of a comparison group of postdoctoral scholars not in the program. The measures of productivity including scientific seminars presented, students mentored, service contributions, and engagement in professional development activities were significantly greater for the scholars in the program.” Just as important as the fact that research productivity was not affected is that those “in the program” produced more seminars, mentored more students, contributed more and developed more “Professional” skills than the “traditional” group. How did the development of these “Diverse Skills” impact the Postdocs? Their follow-up showed “the scholars in the program obtained faculty positions at a threefold greater rate than did a national sample of postdoctoral scholars.”
The results of the BioScience study provide a better conclusion than I could write. “Diverse Skills,” whether known as “Soft Skills,” “Professional Skills” or “Transferable Skills,” are not only “needed” by everyone but are now and have always been valued by funding agencies such as NSF and NIH as well as academic and non-academic employers alike. Crispin is right: “Diverse Skill” training opportunities should be “baked in” by those providing education and sought out by those seeking an education, because math doesn’t lie, “threefold greater” success is better.