Guest post: What skills do you wish you learned? What skill should you impart?

Recently on CAGList, the mailing list for the Canadian Association of Geographers an early career researcher asked established researchers  what kind of training  they wish they had obtained as grad students and post-docs.  Alwynne Beaudoin, adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta, curator of Quaternary Environments at the Royal Alberta Museum and active member of the Canadian Association of Palynologists, posted an excellent reply.

I asked her if it would be okay to post it here (and she’s agreed), because I think it speaks to the heart of what many of us are beginning to realize:  Our ‘hard skills’ training is often excellent, but the soft skills that make our lives much more manageable and enjoyable, and can play a significant role in your career development both inside and outside academia.

1. Effective writing

This may seem obvious, but most students (including me as a grad student) get very little training in effective writing, other than thesis writing. By this, I mean writing at various levels to suit different readerships. At most, students have training in writing academic essays or papers for publication. But the range of written material that scholars are expected to produce in the workaday world ranges far beyond this. In fact, very little time is spent writing research papers; the vast majority of time is spent on other kinds of writing. I would suggest that among the writing tasks that require proficiency are the following: grant proposals; magazine or newsletter articles for the general public; executive summaries; media releases; public information bulletins; formal letters (of various kinds, thanks to granting agencies, responses to questions from the public, letters of recommendation, requests for information, cover letters for job applications); manuscript peer-reviews; reports to granting agencies summarizing work and findings. I’ve had to write all these in my career, as well as many other, less generally applicable, documents. The trick is knowing what the audience is that you are writing for, and pitching the text appropriately. A course that challenged students to use the same project information, but write documents for different audiences would be a great training experience, I think. 

2. Effective presentations

Another skill set that seems obvious. Students have to stand up in class and give seminars, or give conference presentations. But this does not train you for the range of presentations or situations that you may encounter in the work world. Again, it is a question of pitch and audiences. Among the different types of presentations that one may be called on to give are the following: a presentation to a Grade 3 class about your research; a presentation to seniors at a Seniors Residence about your research; a pitch to a granting agency or organization to ask for funds; a presentation to senior management requesting support for a specific research initiative. The tone and approach for each of these are different. Besides knowing how to direct the presentation at the appropriate level, some training in basic speaking and presentation skills would be useful: how to stand and how to dress; how to avoid embarrassing gestures, how to avoid annoying speech mannerisms (“umm, er, like, er, actually, ya know…”); how to project one’s voice; how to deal with questions from the audience; how to deal with a hostile audience. If your research is a success, you will undoubtedly find yourself out there representing your organization in a public forum – it’s important to know how to do it well. Part of this should also encompass media training, for print, radio, and video/TV media. How to deal with reporters, how to deal with questions, how to get your point across in a way that will actually make it to the news.

3. Dealing with people

You will probably find yourself supervising others, either fieldcrew, workers, staff members in a workgroup, volunteers, or students. Training is required in supervisory skills. Team formation; how to deal with and resolve conflict in a workgoup; how to manage people; leadership; modelling respectful behaviour; cross-cultural and cross-generational communication; how to deal with peers and colleagues from different areas; how to “manage up” and deal with your managers and supervisors. Self-knowledge – knowing what your own strengths and weaknesses are. These “soft skills” are not, as far as I know, taught in university but make a real difference in how effective someone is in the workplace. Some social skills are innate, and some people do these things instinctively better than others, but they are skills that can be learned or improved upon. Knowing about how to deal with different personality types and how to interact better with people is something that I really wish I’d had the opportunity to learn more about early in my career.

4. Running effective meetings

You will probably find yourself spending a lot of time in meetings: departmental meetings, workgroup meetings, research team meetings and, possibly, public meetings. Learning how to run a meeting well is another valuable skill. How to set and stick to an agenda, how to take minutes, how to record decisions, how to participate properly in a meeting, how to chair a meeting so that the loudest and most dominant person doesn’t hijack it, how to ensure that all participants get the chance for input, how to achieve consensus or arrive at a decision, and timekeeping. Someone who is good at chairing and running meetings has a skill-set that will be in high demand within their workgroup.

These are all “soft skills” and most have to do with communication and what are broadly known as “people skills”. They apply no matter what your research area or eventual career path may be. I suspect that, like me, most of these skills are learned by “trial and error” (usually more of the latter) on the job. But I think training in these areas would help early career researchers, such as yourself, establish themselves as not only a good scholar but a good colleague and a valuable team member.

Thanks to Alwynne for allowing me to repost this response.  I hope you find it useful.


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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

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