Soft Skills: The Secret Ingredient to a Successful Science Career
By Brooke Bissinger, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This post is the next installment in the Professional Advancement Career Training (PACT) series on Entomology Today, featuring entomologists working in career roles outside academic settings. Learn more about the ESA’s PACT Initiative and read other posts in the PACT series.
Time after time, I see the same thing in the professional development classes and career panels I’ve participated in: Regardless of the job sector, employers agree that soft skills are essential to success in any career. Soft skills are non-technical skills that impact your interpersonal interactions, how you respond to your environment, and your overall performance at work. But what are these critical skills, and how can you develop them?
While you may have spent your school years focused on classes and your specific research area, fear not. There are plenty of experiences away from the classroom and lab where you have likely gained personal growth and emotional intelligence. Volunteering, working in jobs outside your field, participating in sports teams and clubs, and interacting with friends and family shape your personality and can be rich opportunities for developing your non-technical skills.
My formal training is in entomology, and I have worked in the biotechnology industry for the past decade. I started as a scientist at TyraTech before moving into a leadership role. Today, I work at AgBiome, where I lead and work with teams to discover and develop biological products for crop protection. In each of these roles, I’ve used my scientific expertise, but I rely on soft skills on a daily basis.
I personally attribute many of my character traits to the years I spent working in the food service industry before I became a scientist. It’s surprising how often I reflect on these experiences and the skills they gave me.
I was 16 when I started my first job, waiting tables in a retirement community. Before this, most of my time outside of school was spent hanging out with my friends and avoiding homework at all costs. Work really changed things for me because my free time was drastically reduced. I couldn’t afford to put off homework and instead had to purposefully schedule time to get things done. Surprisingly, my grades went up a lot.
When I switched from waiting tables to cooking, I learned about the concept of mise en place, or having everything in its place. Veggies were chopped, meats were portioned, and sauces were prepared well ahead of time so that chefs could efficiently turn out meals in the middle of a busy dinner shift.
Today, in my industry career in crop protection, I lead multiple complex projects with many moving parts and players. Preparation and time management are essential to my ability to meet milestones and be productive while maintaining a healthy work–life balance as a parent, wife, and friend.
It may be easy to imagine yourself working in your specific research area for your entire life. In reality, your role and focus will likely change multiple times throughout your career. Adaptability is being able to change course when necessary, and it encompasses elements of optimism, being open to new ideas, and keeping calm in difficult times.
I waited tables for about a year before I was asked to move to the kitchen, where I would be a prep cook and baker. I accepted the change because it came with a small pay increase and the promise of new skills. I was nervous about it, but I knew there were people in the kitchen who would train and support me.
Overall, things went well, and I learned to love cooking and excel at it. That said, there were a few bumps in the road, like the time I forgot to put sugar in a dessert that was prepared for 350 people. The chef was furious! Instead of beating myself up, I learned from my mistake and made sure I checked the ingredient list before putting anything in the oven.
In my industry role, change happens all the time. New opportunities arise and old ones come to a screeching halt. Being able to roll with the punches is something that I value in team members and that has served me well. It’s also what has allowed me to grow as a professional by embracing the unknown, and by recognizing that the uncomfortable feeling I get as I do so is a sign of growth.
In grad school, students spend a lot of time focused on their own work. They may even be overly competitive and argue over things like authorship order on a manuscript. This type of behavior is counterproductive.
In the restaurant business, waitstaff grapple for tables and tips. They may try to steal tables or cater to patrons who are known to be high tippers. I watched the dynamics of this unfold during a hostess job one year and noticed an interesting trend. The waitstaff who helped one another and made sure the bartender and bussers were supported always seemed to be the ones with the biggest tips, because they were able to provide good service when the support was returned by their teammates.
My experience in industry has always involved working in groups. Successful teams are made up of individuals who openly share information and support each other. These teams deal with conflict quickly and effectively, their members communicate openly and listen to one another, and they reliably honor their commitments.
Being part of a team is a humbling experience. Because teams are often made up of people from diverse backgrounds and fields, it’s perfectly acceptable not to be the expert or the smartest person in the room. Success in your career comes when your teammates rely on you, and you on them.
When I was first studying entomology, I imagined my future position would involve working in a lab or in the field. To my surprise, I quickly moved into a leadership role after starting my first industry job. Looking back, I realize that I gained many leadership skills in food service.
Leadership isn’t about managing people and getting them to do their work; it’s about connecting to the meaning behind the work, inspiring people to be their best version of themselves, and finding value in what they’re doing. The “why” behind the work is often more important than the “what.”
For several years, I led a team of waitstaff made up primarily of high schoolers in a retirement community dining room. I felt a kinship with them and remembered my time in a similar role. I wanted to foster an environment where these teenagers knew they were appreciated and felt that the work they were doing was impactful. Their role wasn’t about serving food to our guests; it was about connecting and interacting with people during what was often the most social part of these retirees’ days.
Today, the work my colleagues and I do in crop protection research and development will ultimately lead to direct benefits for farmers and consumers. Anchoring our work to this vision allows us to solve problems proactively and creatively, keeps us focused on our goals, and ultimately leads us to be successful at what we are trying to accomplish.
These examples provide a sampling of some of the key soft skills that are important for any career. A quick internet search will give you a list of many more. Your own story will be different from mine, but I encourage you to reflect on experiences you’ve had that have shaped your personality and developed your softer side.
Brooke Bissinger, Ph.D., is a research and development leader at AgBiome in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.