22 thoughts on “What professional skill development do you think is most needed and least provided as graduate students and postdoctoral researchers prepare for careers?

  1. Tech skills for sure! Whether this is the back end programming to make your experiments faster/more efficient, to front end skills to present your data and findings. Within this is communication – particularity in the sciences… effective communication to your colleagues, the general public, or future employers can make or break a project.

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  2. Transferable Skills! Leadership skills! How and where to gain these. How to identify those out of your daily involvements or tasks. The graduate students and postdocs often are not familiarized with how much project, people and time management they are actually doing while working on their dissertation, applying for fellowships, writing article etc. In addition, providing them with internship opportunity to gain more transferable skills that align with their career goals so that they can concretely list these on their resumes, but this calls for the PI’s “clemency” on the time not spent in the lab! Encouraging internships or volunteer activities for students and postdocs to learn additional skills while performing bench research should be integral to scientific training.

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  3. Grant Writing. I wish the NSF would support an “Early Career Reviewer” initiative like the NIH. This would give graduate students and post-docs a first hand look at the elements of a successful grant application.

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  4. I don’t think the development of good communications skills is emphasized enough. I can’t tell you how many papers I’ve read and presentations I’ve heard which likely had good content, but was lost on the reader due to the poor presentation. Some advisors are good about mentoring their students in these areas, but all graduate students should get exposed to this. No matter what your job is after graduating, you will be expected to communicate clearly and concisely. I feel that every graduate student should take some form of a communications class in their first year of studies.

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    • I agree–as PhD’s, we are becoming experts in our fields and are so absorbed in our research that at the end of the day, when someone asks, “What do you work on?” we often stumble over our words trying to illustrate in plain terms what it is we actually do for research. This is especially problematic from a self-marketing standpoint, as we need people to understand what we are trying to communicate in order to generate any professional interest in our work.

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      • Communicating science to non-scientists is extremely important – not just from a self marketing point of view. As a community, scientists need to be better communicators. We need to talk about science to our family, to our friends, and to our representatives; at a level that they understand and in an engaging manner. Who knows, maybe if more people talked about science and got others interested in it, the funding climate wouldn’t be so bad.

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  5. Many of the people who obtain PhD degrees will pursue careers in academia that require them to teach at least in some capacity yet there is not much of a focus on teaching people how to teach. By this I mean that while several institutions require that graduate students TA for a class here or there, if a student wants to become a faculty after graduating this experience is not sufficient for learning how to prepare a course and manage a classroom. More attention needs to be given to evidence-based pedagogical practices, particularly with the ever increasing involvement of technology in how we teach. There are some opportunities to learn these concepts if you seek them out, but some of this should be mandatory training for anyone who intends to pursue a career in academia. There are a lot of professors out there who are great researchers, but just aren’t good teachers. This is not necessarily due to a lack of effort, but a lack of training in the proper tools and techniques to teach effectively.

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  6. We should have more networking sessions that are for NSF fellows at conferences. Although Linked-in is a step towards this, having NSF fellows in the same network helps us trouble shoot our experiments and grow as scientists.

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  7. For me, I wish I was able to know how to keep and maintain my personality while being taken seriously. I knew I needed to go and take leadership programs, professional communication, and teaching programs to hone my skills to make myself more hire-able. However, I am a person who is very affable, outgoing, and am not afraid to use my sense of humor. Apparently, as a PhD student, and a female, this means that I run the risk of not being taken “seriously” as a scientist. Just because I want to make my research understandable and not boring!

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    • I also worry sometimes that my personality and sense of humor are at odds with my career. Sometimes I feel stifled when communicating with others about my work; I often feel I am not allowed to genuinely express myself. Maybe I’d like to draw a quirky analogy or reference a work most others find “off-topic” – these habits may be unconventional but they reflect fundamental ways in which I understand my own research. One thing I’ve reflected on: people who cannot value me for my way of thinking and my work simply because they are unamused or bothered by my personality are simply not worth changing myself for. I hope you find a happy medium and that – most importantly – you continue to be you!

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    • I completely agree. Since entering graduate school, I have had an advisor tell me that I need to change my personality if I want to succeed in the program. I have a reserved, introverted personality, but I am nevertheless able to present my work and interact with colleagues. I believe that training on how to interact and work with people of different personality types might be useful for both students preparing for careers and advisors mentoring these students.

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  8. Hands down, statistics and programming skills. My PhD program is at a university that is surrounded by two other highly competitive programs in my field, and it’s a constant battle to win over students into joining our program. Honestly, I think that improving the options for learning programming languages and statistics would make my grad program more attractive to prospective students. Molecular dynamics and other computational methods are becoming extremely popular tools to bolster experimental findings in my field, and if my grad program is to survive, they better be expanding their course offerings into this territory.

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  9. Professional science education needs a bit more “businesslike” education in my opinion. Good scientists are not necessarily ever trained how to hire people, effectively manage people, handle a budget, deal with conflict in their lab, and network effectively. If you are lucky and have an outstanding mentor as a graduate student or postdoc, you may get some of this education from your mentor, but as mentors in academia often have quite variable styles and skill sets, many current trainees are not getting the proper education these areas. It is important not only for those of us wanting to stay in academia, but also trainees wanting to go into industry or other fields.

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    • +1. General management skills. Setting expectations, how a work environment influences productivity, communication with different groups-subordinates, supervisors, students, etc. All the soft management skills that business schools teach. These overlap well with teaching skills and for students who are aiming at academia they can be taught together. Also some real and valuable networking opportunities.

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  10. I am nearing the end of my PhD degree, and I wish I had an answer to this question! I think the answer is different for each discipline. I am studying engineering, and I feel like I would be more prepared for a career if I had more computational/statistical/big data/modeling skills. I could have developed these skills as a graduate student, the option was open to me, but I didn’t realize that I would need them.

    I think it would be awesome if some sort of dynamic database or search engine would be created that would give a number of how many job listings require “x, y, and z” skills/expertise and in what societal sector these jobs exist (academic, government, industry, not-for-profit). Then, if students knew about this database and were encouraged or even required by their school to use it during their first semester in graduate school, they could search it to find out quantitatively what skills are currently in demand in different sectors of society. Then students would be able to take charge of making an informed decision about what skills they should seek to develop in graduate school. I feel like I came in to graduate school thinking I knew what skills I needed because of what skills were taught in school or because of what I had heard other people say, but now that I am searching job postings I realize that I was not properly informed about where the demand is for different skill sets.

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  11. How about, skills and guidance for something besides an academic career?? Almost every student in my field is trained, and every postdoc mentored, under the basic (almost subconscious) assumption that everyone is pursuing an academic path; but the reality is there are about 100 applicants per faculty position. This is not made up, but based on real experience with hiring committees — on both sides. This is like sinking massive amounts of money into every college student training them to be an astronaut or a CEO! My personal estimate is that NSF has spent over a million dollars on my training, and I have a much better chance of getting a hard-money job at Starbucks than in research. #brokensystem

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  12. Programming. While most students have significant exposure to computers prior to university now, they’ve come to expect graphical user interfaces. All STEM students should have training in basic programming skills, including effective software development practices (e.g., version control, unit tests, regression tests, debugging, profiling, writing efficient and effective documentation, saving scripts that generated each result/figure, etc.) so that they can work efficiently, whether in academia or beyond.

    It would also help if students had stronger understanding of mathematics, probability and statistics (e.g., the fundamental logic of Bayesian inference, not memorizing names of silly tests and how to use tables that they don’t understand).

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  13. I agree that finance and budgeting skills are lacking in grad school. In addition, in my field (of biotech and biomedical engineering), I would be better positioned if I had experience or at least training with regulatory law and quality assurance.

    Regarding the comment about leadership skills, I want to share that I have been able to get plenty of those through leadership roles in professional organizations as well as managing several undergraduate students working under my supervision in the lab. Hope this helps!

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    • I very much want to second this idea. After undergrad I spent some time in industry prior to entering graduate school and there’s a need out there for scientists to work in regulatory affairs and quality assurance. Food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, medical devices; all of these industries have varying degrees of regulations and all hire chemists and biologists to oversee their regulatory and quality departments. I’ve seen multiple people with graduate degrees working in such capacity.

      It really would be nice if such a career was talked about as a reasonable possibility, but traditional science degrees don’t seem to provide any training in these areas.

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  14. Getting to participate in the grant-writing process…I’m a 2nd year postdoc and STILL haven’t been included in this, and I don’t have a well-known enough name to just go and write one on my own. Also budgeting for grant-writing. Finally, my PhD program had ZERO opportunities to learn programming skills (we didn’t even have a computing facility, despite the grad students asking for one for YEARS). I have some rudimentary MATLAB skills, but that’s about it….and so many jobs want high level modeling experience that I just didn’t have the opportunity to get. Even though I got a ton of seagoing experience and could manage a research cruise in my sleep, I still feel crippled when considering any kind of academic position because I lack these crucial things. :/

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