Education Opinion

Developing Scientists' "Soft" Skills

Scientists across every field and discipline should be able to communicate effectively and work together with different people and groups.

By Wendy S. Gordon

A great deal of professional advice directed at undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and even early-career scientists focuses on technical skills necessary to succeed in a complex work environment in which problems transcend disciplinary boundaries. Collaborative research approaches are emphasized, as are cross-training and gaining nonacademic experiences [Moslemi et al., 2009].

While I give a ringing endorsement to collaborative problem solving, my years of working as a resource professional have taught me that another suite of skills are every bit as important as the technical skills scientists must master to gain credibility—and this other set is seldom taught in university settings. What are those skills? People skills.

Understanding People Skills

Consider that no matter how much time you spend in a laboratory, in front of your computer, or in the field, your career success ultimately hinges on how well you can work productively and congenially with others. Moreover, scientists increasingly find themselves working with the public in political and stakeholder settings. Effectiveness in these settings rests more on the ability to empathize with and negotiate divergent viewpoints than on creativity with PowerPoint.

Acquisition of practical skills, such as drafting an agenda or running a meeting, is rarely emphasized in academic settings; the teaching of such skills is often left to the workplace. However, in the workplace these skills are often assumed, and supervisors may not take time to teach them—or may not have mastered the skills themselves. The reality is that few scientists receive training in practical skills. This is apparent if you consider, for example, the vast majority of meetings you attend that have no agenda, no stated end time, and no one facilitating the discussion.

Effective Professional Communication: Tactics and Tools

To help you craft or refine your professional development, I offer a list of key skills and resources:

1. Learn to run a meeting. This entails drafting an agenda, keeping time, and recording action items. Executing these steps will make them more productive for you and for others. Even if you are not in charge of the meeting, armed with some basic skills, you can guide others and improve a meeting’s functionality. A good resource is Successful Meetings: How to Plan, Prepare, and Execute Top-Notch Business Meetings [Henkel, 2007].

2. Consider becoming a trained facilitator. A couple of days of training will equip you to effectively plan and manage group problem-solving processes. Knowing how and when to divide a large group into smaller units for discussion, how to guide a brainstorming session, or how to take the pulse of a group in a nonthreatening way on thorny issues will make you invaluable to many people. Six Thinking Hats [de Bono, 1999] is a great book on different modes of thinking.

3. Develop consensus-building skills. They are an important extension of the first two points. Facilitation naturally leads to helping parties negotiate divergent interests or resolve conflict. Participants will appreciate a leader’s ability to stand up in a meeting and serve as a compass. If you can recognize and label the differing interests involved in a situation and separate them from the positions people are defending, you will be able to help participants craft win-win solutions.

Many local dispute resolution centers offer training in these areas. Law schools can be another place to look. Classic books have been written on the topics, including Getting to Yes [Fisher et al., 2011] and Getting Past No [Ury, 1993]. A newer book covering this topic, as well as facilitating and running a meeting, is Breaking Robert’s Rules [Susskind and Cruikshank, 2006].

4. Learn how to lead and manage people. Even if you are not currently a supervisor, you can apply these skills to managing the people above you. Likewise, the inevitable team project will benefit from your skills in this area. Understanding what motivates and drives others can help you deliver the things they need, which will make them and you look good. Asking for clear guidance and agreement on assignments will help ensure that expectations are met.

If you are a supervisor, providing clear direction will generate a better work product from those working for you and less frustration for everyone. Further manage the expectations of those around you by setting realistic deadlines. Delivering agreed-upon work products on time will boost your credibility. There are brief and entertaining books on leadership and management such as Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun [Roberts, 1990] and The One Minute Manager [Blanchard and Johnson, 2003] as well as more in-depth titles such as Skills for New Managers [Stettner, 2013].

5. Cultivate a workplace environment that recognizes and rewards good work. An excellent resource on the topic is Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works [Ventrice, 2009]. We all crave recognition, and doling it out is not within the sole purview of any one person; we have a collective hand in recognizing our peers, our colleagues, and even our bosses.

The last topic also ties in well with the concept of teamwork. The farther up the ladder you travel, the more obvious it is that no one works in a vacuum and that great accomplishments are the product of collaborative efforts. So learn to reward the good work you encounter; handwritten notes highlighting specific efforts, for instance, will be very well received. With rewards, the more you give, the more you get, and the effects are evident in enhanced morale and productivity.

I also recommend taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality inventory, a simple yet very informative assessment tool for identifying your personality type based on how you use perception and judgment. As described on the Myers-Briggs website, the underlying premise is that “perception involves all the ways of becoming aware of things, people, happenings, or ideas. Judgment involves all the ways of coming to conclusions about what has been perceived. If people differ systematically in what they perceive and in how they reach conclusions, then it is only reasonable for them to differ correspondingly in their interests, reactions, values, motivations, and skills.”

Knowing which of the 16 MBTI types you are will provide solid insights into how you gather and process information, how you tend to interact with others, what your preferred work environment is, how you can improve your effectiveness, and even what career paths may be most suitable for you. Interestingly, some school districts are now requiring students to take an online version of the test so they can better understand their own learning modalities and how they interact with their peers. You can readily find career coaches and classes that offer the MBTI personality assessment instrument.

Finally, I encourage you to incorporate learning outside your immediate scientific discipline into your ongoing professional development. Many titles coming from the business world and the social sciences are highly relevant to all careers. Books that have influenced me include What Got You Here Won’t Get You There [Goldsmith and Reiter, 2007], Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard [Heath and Heath, 2010], The Checklist Manifesto [Gawande, 2011], and Smart Thinking [Markman, 2012].

The Bigger Picture

The transition to being an effective professional requires much more than academic knowledge and research skills acquired through undergraduate and graduate training: It requires conscious planning to identify key professional skills for success in your chosen career path.

Whenever possible, take advantage of training opportunities to develop your people skills, taking classes such as “How to Deal With Difficult People,” “What It Takes to Be a Great Team Leader,” or “Managing Without Authority,” many of which are routinely offered by human resources departments and in university settings. Ask those whose people skills you admire for advice. Scan bestseller lists for business titles.

Just as becoming a scientist requires many years of knowledge and skill acquisition, becoming a fully capable professional requires an additional investment of time in developing nontechnical skills. Mastery of these “soft” skills will pay dividends for you and your career.




Blanchard, K. H., and S. Johnson (2003), The One Minute Manager, 111 pp., William Morrow, New York.

de Bono, E. (1999), Six Thinking Hats, 2nd ed., 192 pp., Back Bay, Boston, Mass.

Fisher, R., W. L. Ury, and B. Patton (2011), Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, rev. ed., 240 pp., Penguin, New York.

Gawande, A. (2011), The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, 240 pp., Picador, New York.

Goldsmith, M., and M. Reiter (2007), What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, 256 pp., Hyperion, New York.

Heath, C., and D. Heath (2010), Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, 320 pp., Crown Bus., New York.

Henkel, S. (2007), Successful Meetings: How to Plan, Prepare, and Execute Top-Notch Business Meetings, 288 pp., Atlantic, Ocala, Fla.

Markman, A. (2012), Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done, 272 pp., Perigee, New York.

Moslemi, J. M., K. A. Capps, M. S. Johnson, J. Maul, P. B. McIntyre, A. M. Melvin, T. M. Vadas, D. M. Vallano, J. M. Watkins, and M. Weiss (2009), Training tomorrow’s environmental problem solvers: An integrative approach to graduate education, BioScience, 59, 514–521.

Roberts, W. (1990), Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, 110 pp., Business Plus, New York.

Stettner, M. (2013), Skills for New Managers, 2nd ed., 192 pp., McGraw-Hill, New York.

Susskind, L. E., and J. L. Cruikshank (2006), Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus, and Get Results, 222 pp., Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, New York.

Ury, W. (1993), Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations, rev. ed., 208 pp., Bantam, New York.

Ventrice, C. (2009), Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works, 2nd ed., 220 pp., Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, Calif.

—Wendy Gordon, Ecologia Consulting, Austin, Tex.; email: [email protected]

Citation: Gordon, W. (2014), Developing scientists’ “soft” skills, Eos Trans. AGU, 95(6), 55, doi:10.1002/2014EO060003.

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