Ten Essential Soft Skills for Life Scientists
Being a great life scientist requires more than just a steady pipette hand! Your qualifications and lab techniques are important but so are your interpersonal skills, your ability to communicate and your willingness to be a team player.
We’ve picked out 10 of the most important soft skills that researchers should think about when applying for or taking on a new role in life science…
Science research revolves around the exchange of information, and good communication skills are vital at every stage of your science career. From sharing information between colleagues in the lab, to exchanging data with other institutes around the world, being clear and concise in your communication methods will save time and ensure mistakes are avoided. Communication skills in academia, both spoken and written, can be learned and should be practised, and there are plenty of resources online which can help you to fine-tune these skills.
Presentations and public-speaking
There will be times in your academic career when you will be required to make presentations and perhaps speak in public at science conferences or events. Perhaps you’ll be asked to deliver lectures to students, or lead group discussions amongst potential collaborators. Public-speaking doesn’t come naturally to everyone but it is something that definitely gets easier the more you do it.
For science presentation tips from Dr Emily Grossman, check out How To Be A Brilliant Science Communicator on the Hello Bio blog!
Communicating with the public
As a life scientist you will also need to communicate your research and results to non-scientists, and being able to do this well is vital for building public trust in scientists and avoiding misinterpretation of data. Social media is a great communication tool that can help with this, and finding your voice online can be an effective way of reaching those who might not otherwise have an interest in science research.
Take a look at these great articles on public engagement and Dr Emma Yhnell’s article on How Early Career Life Scientists Can Use Social Media Effectively for more advice.
Being a good team player is essential in science, and some of the most renowned scientists in history have credited much of their success to the strength of the teams working around them. As an early career scientist you may feel like a small cog in part of a larger machine, but it’s important to remember that each cog, no matter its size, is essential in ensuring the whole system operates effectively.
Working as part of a team isn’t always easy however, and it can require a great deal of patience and compromise when it comes to working with people from different backgrounds and with different personalities to your own.
Romi Vandoren explores the key components of a great science team in her article on Creating the Perfect Science TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.
The future of science research relies on collaboration, and bringing together scientists from different disciplines to work together can be a unique challenge. Being able to do this effectively requires respect for each other’s expertise and the willingness to be open-minded when it comes to hearing new ideas.
For more thoughts on multidisciplinary teamwork, take a look at Multidisciplinary Teamwork: Tips for a Productive and Harmonious Workplace by Paolo Pinti of the Centre for Brain Cognitive Development at Birkbeck College, London.
In the world of science research, things can change in a split-second and a project you’ve been working on for months in the lab may suddenly be turned on its head by an unexpected set of results. Being adaptable therefore is another essential soft skill in science, and being able and willing to change course or take a different path within your research may just get you that little bit further.
Adapting to a new life abroad
A successful science career might take you abroad to work in a lab in another country, something which requires enormous levels of adaptability in order to adjust to a new culture or way of working.
Sonia Sanz Muñoz of the University of Copenhagen discusses this topic in greater detail in her article on Undertaking a PhD in an International Lab.
Being well-organised is a skill which will benefit any career path, but in a STEM role it can give you the upper hand and when it comes to keeping up with the demands of a busy research lab. Planning and preparation are key when it comes to getting organised, and ensuring you have considered all outcomes before embarking on a new project or experiment will increase your chances of success.
Key to a healthy work-life balance
Good organisational skills are especially important if you have additional commitments outside of your day-to-day lab work, such as writing a thesis or parenting responsibilities. Putting plans and processes in place from day one will help you stick to a routine and ensure that the things that are important to you don’t slip down your priority list.
Laura Geben discusses the importance of organisation for academic parents with these 10 Tips for Balancing Parenthood on the Path to Your Phd.
5. Time Management
Throughout your life science career you’ll undoubtedly wish for more time to complete that experiment, write that paper or apply for that grant. The demands of a STEM research career are huge and it’s easy to slip into the habit of working evenings or weekends in order to get everything done. Good time management is a soft skill which is easy to talk about but often more difficult to implement.
Create a routine that works for you
A great way to improve your time management skills is to identify and create routines that will fit with your workload. Of course your tasks will vary from week to week and from experiment to experiment, but having an awareness of what works for you (and when) can help to streamline your working day.
Take a look at this great article by Maria Montefinese of the IRCCS San Camillo Hospital in Venice, who shared some great tips on improving science writing productivity by establishing good writing spaces and routines: Scientific Papers: Tips for More Productive Writing.
6. Attention to Detail
Good attention to detail in the science lab is crucial and can mean the difference between the success and failure of an experiment. It’s a soft skill which requires focus and commitment, and can be affected negatively by lack of enthusiasm for a subject or exhaustion from overwork. Fine details can be overlooked if you’re putting in too many hours in the lab, ultimately leading to work needing to be done again which will only add to your workload and create a vicious cycle of failure.
It seems like an obvious one, but the ability to solve problems is an essential skill for any scientist. Each experiment undertaken is an attempt to solve a problem or find a solution for something, and it’s difficult to pursue a STEM career without being able to think in this way. But the skill of problem-solving is more than just finding the answer to a question or solution to an equation. It can be finding a practical solution to a piece of broken lab equipment, finding an alternative way of completing an experiment when certain materials aren’t available, and thinking on your feet when things go wrong.
If you’re hoping to climb the ranks within academic science then strong leadership skills will be vital to help you reach the top. Good leadership requires the ability to motivate, to take control and to offer guidance and support to those around you at the right times. A good lab leader needs to see the ‘bigger picture’ and have a good overview of the lab as a whole, knowing when to step in and when to delegate tasks to others.
For more thoughts on the importance of effective lab leadership, check out Why strong leadership is vital for great science (and how to create it in your lab) by Jaana Van Gastel, Clinical Data Manager at SGS, Belgium.
Being a natural leader
For some academics the idea of being a leader comes naturally, but for others it can require work and self-reflection to understand the qualities needed to lead successfully.
Dr Simona Carbone of Monash University, Australia, is the creator of a podcast dedicated to the theme of leadership in science. She told us: “I don’t feel we academics are very good at learning about ‘leadership’ and what leadership positions are available to us. Great leadership, I believe can make a real difference. If your team are happy, properly guided and supported, they will work more effectively. This makes a real difference in the outcomes they are trying to achieve and in science, those potential outcomes can have a huge impact on the world we live in.”
Read more from Dr Carbone and The Lead Candidate podcast in our science podcast feature: Podcasts by Scientists: The Lead Candidate.
9. Interpersonal Skills
As mentioned above, science is rarely a solo pursuit and throughout your career you’ll need strong interpersonal skills to work successfully alongside other scientists from all walks of life. Interpersonal skills require more than just the ability to ‘get along’ with others without conflict. Consider also your ability to empathise and have awareness of the needs of your lab colleagues. Mental health in the workplace is now a much bigger consideration than ever before, so having an awareness of potential stress and upset within the lab can be a really valuable skill that can help prevent small problems becoming much bigger ones.
Essential for mentoring
If you hope to take on a mentorship role one day then interpersonal skills are particularly important when it comes to maintaining good mentor-mentee relationships. Being supportive, willingness to give and receive feedback and maintaining honest and regular communication are key interpersonal skills that will allow you both to get the most from the experience.
Professor Stuart Maudsley of the Receptor Biology Lab at the University of Antwerp describes his mentor Bob Lefkowitz as “a master of interpersonal communication” in his guest blog: Why Scientists Need Great Mentors.
10. Stress Management
With a successful career in life science will come a certain amount of stress as you face the demands of project deadlines, the need to find and apply for funding, and the competitive nature of the STEM industry. The ability to recognise and manage stress when it starts to take its toll is a hugely valuable skill that will benefit both your mental and physical health.
Being in tune with your body and recognising the signs of burnout is key to protecting yourself from the potential impact of a stressful period in the lab. There are numerous techniques you can learn and practice in order to help improve your stress management skills.
The Life Scientists’ Guide to Wellbeing is one useful resource to help develop ways of caring for your mental and physical health during your life science career.
Tell us about the ones we’ve missed! Which soft skills do you think are most important for a career in life science? Which soft skills have been most useful for you in your career so far? Share with us in the comments or tweet us at @hello_bio!
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