Contract researchers – people skills are important to your career success. In this post I talk about how you may already have developed these skills in your current role and how you can demonstrate them when applying for a job in another sector.
In a recent post I said that postdoctoral researchers in the UK face challenges. The main ones are a lack of job security, poor employment prospects and coping with a series of fixed-term contracts. The harsh reality is that there are not enough university lecturerships for all the postdoctoral researchers who want one. Research students also need to be aware of this.
These challenges have led to some researchers considering a career outside university research. But sometimes researchers feel they are not well qualified for a different job. This is almost certainly wrong! You possess lots of transferable skills. And you can take steps to enhance them.
You need to be aware of the skills employers look for. In the 2016 Wakeham review of employability of STEM graduates, employers repeatedly mentioned people skills (also known as soft skills) as something that should be strengthened. A post on the BizLibrary blog in 2017 quotes Stanford Research Institute International: “75% of long term job success depends upon soft skills mastery and only 25% on technical skills”. The message is clear: people skills count massively in career success.
Nine soft skills that often feature on recruiters’ lists include:
This includes writing and speaking skills. As a researcher you will be good at writing. This includes reports for your funder, grant applications, papers and book chapters. You will also be experienced at giving seminars and talks about your research. But this will generally be for a specialised audience. Communicating to a non-specialist audience requires different skills, simpler language, shorter sentences and more explanation. You may be able to expand your communication skills by explaining concepts to undergraduate students. Perhaps there are opportunities to speak to prospective students and their families at open days. Could you contribute an event at a local festival? Have you thought about starting a blog?
Team working ability
Many jobs in different sectors (including academia) need you to work well with other people. This includes understanding what everyone brings to the team, agreeing who will do what, supporting others when their workload is very heavy, communicating well to avoid misunderstandings, completing your on time so as not to hold up the team. As a researcher you may be working largely on your own. But even so you will be interacting with other people some of the time. For example, your supervisor or team leader, your funder, people you are writing papers with. You may be able to extend your team working skills through teaching by becoming part of a teaching team, or co-editing a book, or being part of a conference organising committee, or being involved in a professional society.
Emotional intelligence or EI
This includes understanding yourself, your values and motivations, and your personal strengths and weaknesses. It involves being able to control your emotions. EI also covers the ability to understand and build rapport with people, including those who are different from you, and to have good working relationships. There is plenty of information on the web about EI. Do take a look if you are not familiar. A good place to start is “Working with Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman.
Critical thinking skills
This includes assembling information and making connections between facts, reaching judgements and solving problems logically. This should be familiar ground for researchers. One way of improving your critical thinking might be to apply these skills to areas outside your research field. This might include discussing some of the big issues faced by society with friends and colleagues. Or you might have the opportunity to represent researchers on a university committee.
The ability to take the initiative or to lead others is a valuable skill. In some disciplines, researchers work largely on their own. If you are part of a research team, especially in science or engineering, you may have the opportunity to show leadership. For example, if equipment breaks down, you may be able to troubleshoot the problem and fix it. Outside activities may provide more opportunities to lead, for example if you are a leader of a youth group or take the lead in organising neighbourhood events.
Being able to bounce back when things haven’t gone according to plan is an important skill. You should not fear failing but when you fail at something or something doesn’t work out, you need to be able to learn from the experience and use the learning positively. Things often do not work out as planned when you are a researcher so you may have built a good deal of resilience already. Perhaps there are other ways you have developed resilience not related to research, such as through organising other activities at work, or in your personal life.
Employers need people who have various skills, such as good time-keeping, social skills and organisational skills. They want staff they can trust and who show a good work ethic. You will be using several of these skills when you work as a contract researcher but others might be developed further through outside activities. Being a school governor, for example, or holding another position of responsibility provides the opportunity to clearly demonstrate some skills.
The ability to actively listen without interrupting is valuable. Active listening is not limited to the words used. It includes the tone of voice and body language of the person you are listening to. Active listening helps you to gain the trust of peoples, especially if they have come to you for advice. It is also an important skill when receiving feedback (which may not be all positive). Listening to the opinions of others is a great way to learn. Asking questions for a clarification is a good way to check that you have understood correctly. You can enhance your listening skills with family, friends and people you know outside work, as well as at work.
Ability and willingness to learn
Of course you can demonstrate this skill through your research. But how about your ability to learn in a different area? If you have switched research field or it you are involved in inter-disciplinary research you may have had to learn about another area quite quickly. Living and working in a different country may be something else you have done. You may have needed to adapt to another culture quite quickly. Or perhaps you have spent some time working with a user of research and have learnt about their organisation and fitted in as a member of their team.
By working on all of these transferable skills, you will increase your value to employers in all sectors.
This post follows my previous posts First Class Postdoctoral Career Opportunities can embrace Different Sectors and Roles and How different is being Self-Employed from being a Contract Researcher?
During a 25+ year career as an academic, Jenny Ames graduated ~25 PhD students and mentored ~25 contract researchers. Some have careers in academia while others work in different sectors. Jenny is now Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd. She is available to give talks, run workshops and provide mentoring for research students and contract researchers. She can advise managers on strategy development and implementation regarding the professional development of researchers.