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Use Soft Skills to Sell Your Hard-Earned Life Sciences Technical Expertise

If you’re a student or early career professional in the life sciences, chances are you have focused on earning an education and building your technical expertise in the lab. You may not have had an opportunity to think about the soft skills – communication, teamwork and leadership, to name a few – that demonstrate intangible abilities in a tangible way. The experts explain how these skills factor into who gets the job, leads the team, makes the presentation and secures that important promotion.

“Technical depth will always be important, but life sciences is not just about technical expertise anymore,” says Marquita M. Qualls, Ph.D., a leadership coach and founder and principal of Entropia Consulting, Washington, DC. “Career momentum is about building, interacting and working in cross-disciplinary teams.”

Qualls, a scientist by training with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, worked for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in drug development and scientific strategy and has over 20 years of experience in consulting, coaching and motivating people. “Because today’s workplace is so transferable and global, there isn’t one specific skill set that people are seeking. They want people who are more well rounded,” she says.

When career planning experts discuss being well rounded, they are generally referring to soft skills, or the aptitude one has for leadership, teamwork, communication, problem-solving, flexibility/adaptability, interpersonal relations and overall work ethic. These are the skills, when paired with appropriate technical ability, that help job applicants stand out from the crowd, according to the National Soft Skills Association (NSSA), a national clearing house on past and present research to identify the best practices within the soft skills field. NSSA cites research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center that concludes that 85 percent of job success comes from having well developed soft and people skills, while only 15 percent of job success comes from technical skills and knowledge.

Multinational technology giant Google found the same results when they conducted research into hiring, firing and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998, as reported in a recent Washington Post article. Google found that among the eight most important qualities of its top employees, science, math, engineering and mathematics (STEM) expertise came in dead last. The top qualities for success at Google came from the soft skill set: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others, having empathy, critical thinking and making connections across complex ideas.

What this means for students and early career professionals is that developing these soft skills is crucial. But it’s sometimes a big challenge, according to public speaking pro Thomas Kost, Ph.D. “Much of the training in Ph.D. and Master’s programs prepares students for academia and doesn’t cover the basic soft skills that are important for alternative careers in industry, biotechnology or even communications,” says Kost, another former GSK scientist who spent his 26-year career directing early drug discovery efforts with an emphasis on viral-vector-based gene delivery and protein expression, while mentoring other GSK scientists in preparation for internal and external presentations.

“Of the students going through biomedical related Ph.D. programs, only 25 percent end up holding academic positions,” he continues, citing a recently published study from The Council of Graduate Schools. In the study, fewer than half of the 226 institutions polled report having formal programs for graduate students to develop skills for non-academic careers, although they described professional development programs as valuable resources that help students focus on skills that are transferrable across multiple careers and disciplines.

Kost explains that prospects for building these skills only slightly improve for life sciences professionals as they move deeper into their careers. While those who go into industry may have access to in-house skills courses, from his personal experience at GSK he notes that “most don't take the time to participate.”

Make the Rounds

It doesn’t matter if you graduated yesterday or have been working in the profession for 25 years, Qualls encourages career builders to get out of their classrooms, labs or offices and into their organizations, career sectors and professional communities.

“Interact with other parts of the business. As you move up, it’s important to not only understand what’s going on in your particular space or circle, but also to understand how it relates to other areas of the business,” says Qualls. “You have to think about career development, areas of the profession on which you have impact and the next step to take.”

She encourages life sciences professionals to remain on a continuous improvement cycle. “Never rest on your laurels, always be ready to learn more,” cautions Qualls, who encourages professionals at all levels of their careers through weekly podcasts in which she covers a broad range of topics while highlighting STEM professionals at the top of their careers. A common topic thread in her conversations is continuous learning and career exploration. Podcasts from November dared to ask the question “What’s Your Why Me?” as she examined what might hinder professionals from maintaining excellence. In the podcasts, Qualls says what hinders most is usually a matter of under-developed or under-utilized skills, mentors or networking. Making an investment in any of these areas can equal career progress.

“Whether you choose a career in industry, government or academia, it’s very easy to become too comfortable being the subject matter expert,” Qualls explains. “You know what’s going on in your area, you know it’s solid, you have a lot of depth, but as you begin to move in your career, particularly if you want to move up, you’re going to have to spread out.”

For students and early career professionals, she advises “ask simple questions when you meet professionals in your career area such as, ‘tell me what you do’ or “what does your job entail’ rather than trying to phrase your requests as ‘I am in the job market,’” says Qualls. “I always encourage people to get out and talk to others, do some informational interviews so that you have a better understanding of your options and choices.”She adds that an important part of setting an informational interview is establishing expectations. “When you do an informational interview, you are just gathering information, not going in with expectation that it will lead to a job,” she says.

Build Your Brand

Qualls describes a personal brand as “an individual’s statement of quality. It’s a commitment to who you are and what you have to offer. It’s a compilation of your capabilities as well as your abilities. It’s your reputation and your past performance,” she explains. Her lively career workshop at SLAS2018 explores this concept as well as powerful career planning objectives in “What is A Personal Brand and Why Do I Need One?” to be held Monday, Feb. 5, during the international conference and exhibition.

When people start thinking about their personal brand and how they want to be perceived in the scientific community, “the first step is to examine what you want to project and how you want that image to direct where you go with your career,” she continues. “That is why securing your personal brand and making certain that it works for your career development is extremely important.”

Regardless of how you think you are presenting yourself, “remember that perception is reality,” says Qualls. “Sometimes we think we appear one way, and in actuality it comes across in a different manner.” She advises career planners to get feedback from peers, supervisors and even family members. “Those people who know you best will probably share the truth and give you the most accurate reflection of what you are projecting,” she says.

“If you want to be known as a go-getter, or as someone who is at the top of their game or someone who is really credible, then you want to make certain that’s what people see,” she says. In today’s workplace, Qualls asserts that people evaluate whether someone is credible or not through their publications, presentations and even their presence on social media. “It all contributes to how people see you and what their perception of you is,” she says. “It all works to build your brand.”

Flex Your Social Media Muscle

Social media also provides a way to build soft skills in communications – if career builders take advantage of the opportunities offered through social media channels such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; channels where “people are accessible and you can connect with them for information,” notes Qualls.

“Constructive social media involvement fulfills one of the key aspects of building your career – how to communicate,” she continues. “Understanding how to use different social media channels and write an effective comment online makes it easier to learn about opportunity, careers and people as you progress.”

It’s easy to get started. For example, when browsing on LinkedIn and you notice an article written by someone you know, “pose a follow-up question or add a comment,” Qualls advises. “Provide your perspective; that’s how people grow connections, network and learn about other areas of the profession.” It’s also how you show your communication talents and a snapshot of your expertise to others in the professional community.

Qualls recommends that career builders add comments to social media channels for groups with which they are most familiar. “Your professional society is a good place to start. SLAS is a great venue for people to see the breadth and depth of the life sciences profession,” she says, pointing to the variety of channels available through SLAS social media on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn discussion groups for both Americas and Europe, as well as YouTube. “The moderators who work for professional organizations add items, such as articles, to social media sites and make it easy to contribute to a conversation. Start with something as simple as, ‘I read this article and I thought it was really good.’ You would be surprised at how your comment will inspire someone else to comment and the next thing you know, a conversation has started.”

Never Miss a Chance to Speak

Whether it is on social media before a virtual audience or a live presentation in poster or podium format at a scientific meeting, life sciences professionals have frequent opportunities to present research and ideas. Kost’s informative SLAS2018 workshop, “Speaking Tips to Avoid Presentation Disaster,” to be held Tuesday, Feb. 6, offers ideas for building important oral communications skills.

“Individuals who are effective and entertaining speakers put an effort into researching, writing and delivering effective presentations,” says Kost, who retired from GSK, but not his active public speaking life. He achieved the Distinguished Toastmaster designation, the highest level of award recognized by the non-profit organization Toastmasters International, during his years of presentations for the pharmaceutical company. Now in retirement, he mentors and speaks on presentation skills before a number of professional societies in the life sciences and discovery field.

“People who develop good presentation skills have greater career opportunities, regardless of whether they are students or more established professionals, due to an enhanced ability to connect with and influence their audiences,” Kost says. Because public speaking skills transfer to other areas of communications, he suggests taking advantage of any available training. “While most life sciences professionals can get by with average to below-average presentation skills, it doesn’t take much effort to improve and become a stand-out,” Kost comments. 

Two of his top tips are knowing something about your audience and using the rule of three. “I ask people, what’s the most important thing to think about when you prepare your presentation? Then I hear them describe what they’re going to tell the audience,” he explains. “What they should think about instead is who are the individuals that will be in my audience – age, gender, experience – and what are their expectations? Knowing these elements helps a speaker decide what is important to the audience.” This same tip works for making effective posts to social media, he notes.

For the rule of three, Kost advises: “People remember information in groups of three – stop, drop and roll, for example. Your mind is primed to hear three things. If you move on to four, five or beyond, people won’t remember it.”

Keep the rule of three idea in front of you when preparing slides, as well. “One study I came across reported that every day in the world there are 20 million PowerPoint presentations given. People are subjected to this on a daily basis, so keep it simple,” Kost says.“I am a virologist by background, but I don’t know all the virus families to the Nth detail. If I’m at a conference and someone is presenting research about a virus that I am not familiar with, I need to hear it presented more simply. I can look up the details afterward.”

Kost also counsels professionals to start public speaking as early as possible in their careers, before bad speaking habits become more difficult to eliminate. Students, obviously, have the greatest advantage. “A good first step would be seeking a professional development group for graduate students,” he says.“Find a professional graduate program or a journal club within your university. Graduate students frequently establish these programs themselves to help one another seek information both inside and outside of the institution.” Kost notes that the principal investigator (PI) with whom the student works may not always be the best resource for developing soft skills.

On-Point Education

Kost and Qualls plan to help career planners strengthen their soft skills muscle through SLAS Career Connections workshops at SLAS2018 that focus on essential career-building tools to enhance intangible soft skills. In addition to these expert-led workshops, students and early career professionals at SLAS2018 can take advantage of a discreet, automated job search program, online professional services, respected career center and development, mentoring and one-on-one counseling sessions, as well as networking events.

Another avenue for expanding your communications skills and building your brand is through publishing your work. Curious how to get started? On Wednesday, Feb. 7, during SLAS2018 the editors-in-chief of the SLAS journals host an SLAS Author Workshop: “How to Prepare a Manuscript for Publication.” In this session, SLAS Discovery Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Campbell, Ph.D. (Eli Lilly & Co.) and SLAS Technology Editor-in-Chief Edward Kai-Hua Chow, Ph.D. (National University of Singapore) present a step-by-step overview of how to design and write scientific research papers more clearly and effectively to improve their chances for publication. Attendees learn what editors want, what they don't want, common mistakes, insider tips and how reviewers evaluate manuscripts.

For those wanting more personalized time to discuss publishing, one-on-one personal consultations with the editors at SLAS2018 are available by appointment on a first come, first served basis (contact Nan Hallock). This great opportunity gives prospective authors time to discuss their work, ask about publication options and learn more about how the SLAS journals can help researchers make a bigger splash in life sciences.

January 22, 2018