Enduring Skills and the Future of Work
No one succeeds alone, so graduate students should focus on building human skills in order to advance in their careers
Let’s start off with a statement that may sound a bit alarming to the science and engineering graduate students and postdocs who are reading this: there is no formula for career success. No combination of your skills plus talent plus hard work definitively guarantees success in your career or life. That’s partly because the world is not predictable or fair, but it’s also due to a truth that seems obvious when examined deeply and holistically but is shocking when someone socialized in a modern, capitalist economy first encounters it: your success isn’t up to you.
“Greatness is in the agency of others” is a phrase often used by Scott Galloway, a faculty member at New York University’s Stern School of Business and influential blogger/podcaster. The crux of this argument is that no one succeeds alone. Rather, we live in a society where, even if it’s only realized by a subset of the population, we produce success collectively. In fact, the only reason our modern economies function is through the collective and specialized actions of many individuals contributing, yes, their distinct skills and abilities to the world.
The key word there is collective—we succeed together even if many of us don’t realize or acknowledge it. A central example is childcare and education. Even the most naturally gifted individual must be cared for as a baby and young child to reach an age when they can achieve their potential. Furthermore, they need schooling and access to information from other people in order to understand the world and how they can build on the contributions of countless individuals to create new breakthroughs. Those breakthroughs may lead that individual to financial rewards and being touted as a genius, disrupter or successful entrepreneur, but their success is not 100 percent their own.
In an increasingly complex world with technology advancing at a blistering pace, no one can know it all or be totally self-made. For many decades, leveraging one’s technical skills and abilities to produce value was paramount to having a successful career. You needed to offer those skills that were in demand in the current economy to be recognized as providing value in a purely economic sense. While that seemed to be rational and efficient, it was not necessarily good for human flourishing. We are more than our skills and physical outputs. And today the acceleration in generative artificial intelligence technology has left many of us wondering: What are we human beings good for in a future where AI can produce many outputs similar to our own more efficiently and effectively?
The answer is each other. We are good for each other in this quickly evolving world.
A quote by the famous American poet, writer and activist Maya Angelou nicely embodies what we all should strive for as human beings today and always:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Human skills, or interpersonal skills, encompass a variety of abilities and competencies that help us work effectively with other people. Communication, empathy, emotional intelligence and other attributes fall under this umbrella.
Communication is vital to so many professional roles and ultimately facilitates or hinders teamwork and progress toward institutional or organizational goals.
Compassion and empathy are crucial for dealing with the setbacks and challenges that are inevitable in life and demonstrate to others that we care and value them.
These human skills are essential to succeeding and enduring professionally. The fact is that while your technical and tangible skills can land you a job interview or entry-level position, your interpersonal attributes are what will make someone want to have you as a colleague or work for you.
Unfortunately, many individuals pursuing their graduate degrees or postdoctoral research dismiss the importance of those attributes. When discussing a frustrating job-search process, they ask things like, “Doesn’t my work speak for itself?” Yet while tangible and technical skills are surely important, we are often being assessed on the more intangible, human ones. And that’s a good thing, because we are all more than the skills, abilities and accomplishments that we can list on our résumé—and future employers consider us as such when hiring or promoting us.
Colleges and companies will often hire someone with Ph.D.-level training even in research-focused positions with the intention that person will ultimately become a future project or program leader. Being placed in a leadership role might not occur right away, but many employers will be looking for glimpses of strong interpersonal skills when interviewing candidates. And even more value is placed on interpersonal skills if you are transitioning into a nonresearch role. At that point, an employer doesn’t often care as much about your specific technical skills or research accomplishments but rather that, by completing a graduate degree, you showed the ability to think critically, solve problems, extract insight from data and communicate your findings. Your Ph.D. experience provides a breadth of these transferable human skills that employers value and seek.
Building Interpersonal and Leadership Skills
So how can you work to build such interpersonal skills? By putting yourself out there and practicing.
That’s best accomplished when the stakes are low. You can start out by simply attending a graduate student or postdoctoral association event and chatting with a few people in attendance. Making small talk can seem trivial, but it works to build connections with others. In fact, it may seem trivial to you to go to an event and listen to a fellow grad student or postdoc vent about their day or talk about their new dog, but that doesn’t mean it is trivial to them. Sometimes people just need to be heard, to believe that what they have to say or share is worthy of another human being’s time and attention. The introverts reading this (of which I count myself) can all acknowledge we would most often rather listen than talk. The good news is we can go to one of these community events and mostly listen and affirm what we hear from others.
The next step in building your interpersonal and leadership skills might be getting involved in planning an event with a group or association around a topic or activity that you all care about: advocating for better student or postdoc benefits, raising funds to donate to a local food pantry, tutoring elementary school students—you name it. That could lead to more formal involvement in an organization where you manage projects and people as you work toward achieving a common goal—practicing a skill set that will come in handy in your professional life. Great places to find groups to get involved with include Meetup.com and GreatNonprofits.org. You can also explore VolunteerMatch for service opportunities in your area.
Busy graduate students, postdocs and professionals will often cite the lack of time as a hurdle to making connections with others or engaging in organizations or activities that would benefit them professionally and personally. They see these social and community engagement activities as luxuries and distractions. Time is indeed a finite resource, and there will always be more work to be done than time to do it. But time with other people is time well spent. In addition, science shows you will feel better from having engaged in these prosocial behaviors. What’s more, by building informal networks, you can begin to find people whom you can rely on for help. That is essential, as sometimes we are the helpers and sometimes we are the ones needing help.
Human skills are not only valuable to you professionally but also personally. This may go without saying, but sometimes we can forget how important it can be to be caring and compassionate when interacting with others. Saying thank you and showing other signs of appreciation to others, remembering relevant personal information and milestones of your coworkers, and being willing to be helpful even if an ask is “outside my job description” can go a long way. Many people want more opportunities to socialize and bond with others, but it often takes someone to be brave enough to initiate the process. Will that be you?
Embracing your humanity and honing your interpersonal skills through practice will allow you to better relate to and understand other human beings’ needs, hopes and desires. That will in turn pay dividends in your work and life, as well as in society as a whole.
In fact, our national loneliness epidemic could benefit from more human connection and compassion. No one succeeds on just their own skills and abilities. Rather, greatness is in the agency of others: engaging with others, listening to others, empathizing with others and working collectively with others. That collective agency is essential not only for our own personal and professional fulfillment but for a functional and prosperous society for all.