Developing Leadership and Business Skills for Scientists: SciPhD Virtual Workshop 2021 – Part 1

By: Shawn Rumrill

For their first event of the new year Rutgers iJOBS partnered with SciPhD for an exciting week of skill building activities that covered everything from crafting a resume to project management to negotiating salary. Founded in 2010 by Randall Rimbaud, Ph.D., and Larry Petcovic, M.S., SciPhD brings leadership skills and business knowledge to scientists in academia who plan to make the jump to industry, or other sectors like government and non-profit positions. Through 20 hours of fast-paced activities and engaging lectures, more than 60 students from Rutgers University and beyond learned many skills that would make them competitive and successful in careers. The short story: SciPhD is a fantastic program! The long story: Keep reading to find out how attendees learned critical business, leadership, and negotiation skills to be leveraged in searching and securing their first job in industry.

(Day 1) The Hunt – Finding a Job

Day 1 of the workshop kicked off with Mr. Randall Rimbaud (Randy) covering 1) how to find a job you might like,2) how to understand if you are qualified and 3) how to create your brand and develop a targeted resume There are many career choices for those who earn a PhD in a STEM field! Oftentimes big pharma, biotech, or engineering firms are the go-tos for graduates, but SciPhD ephasized exploration of less obvious areas such as venture capital, where scientists might weigh in on investments strategies. Non-profit jobs that include outreach, advocacy, and more humanitarian focused endeavors are also rewarding careers. No matter the path, it was enlightening to realize just how many roles PhD scientists can take outside of academia or even traditional industrial roles. The one adage from my mother that comes to mind in considering a career path is “do what you love and love what you do, then you’ll never work a day in your life.” 

An important resource Randy discussed was the Individual Development Plan (IDP). The  IDP is a  tool used to help  mid- late stage careers of PhD students to identify their passions and shape their journey to achieve careers that they love. In my own experience, IDPs are commonplace in graduate programs and often required components for yearly committee reviews. 

Once you’ve found a job you think you would love, how do you know you are qualified? For a molecular biologist who hopes for a career in gene therapy this might seem like a straightforward answer. But what about the engineer who wants to be a science writer or the chemist who wants to find new avenues in legal consulting or patent work? Moreover, is getting a job just about having specific technical skills? Randy’s advice: “guide yourself using our dream job description.” From this, it is easy to pull out technical skill requirements like running a PCR, but in general there are other subtle keywords that suggest the most sought-after skills might be soft skills. The bottom line for Randy is that scientists often focus on their technical ability and forget their role is not only scientific (what you do) but business (how you do it) and social (how you interact with others) as well. 

Business and social skills contribute to the bulk of job failure, most of which occur within 18 months of hire.

The business and social skills Randy notes contribute to the bulk of job failure, most of which occur within 18 months of hire. Have you been frustrated as a new PhD graduate to see that most jobs want 2-3 years of experience? They aren’t saying that because they want your technical skills (anyone can be trained) but because they want to know you have developed business and social skills in a professional setting similar to the job for which you’re applying. Soft skills are the only thing that can’t be gleaned from a PhD – everyone is coming in with technical skills by nature of the degree. But don’t despair, says Randy, fortunately for us the cycle of a PhD is much the same as business. Once you learn enough of the business and social language required to communicate your technical and soft skills, you become much more appealing to prospective employers.

(Day 1) The lynchpin – core business competencies

Your next question might be what are the core business and social skills (competencies) that can make me the most competitive? First, let’s take a step back. Two pervasive themes throughout the workshop are keeping in mind 6 core business and social competencies and the STAR method as a means of writing experience statements that convey how you embody each competency. Let’s explore these two themes in turn. Below is a list of the core competencies and the questions we should keep in mind when developing our business and social skills:

  • Creating the vision: are you strategic and innovative in your planning? do you have a plan B?
  • Developing your people: can you be collaborative, enabling, and empathetic with your coworkers? Can you develop strong rapport?
  • Execution: do you structure your work by including appropriate controls, making immediate tactical decisions, and delegating to keep projects on time and on budget?
  • Achieving results: Are you productive, disciplined, and focused on your task with a keen awareness of your competition?
  • Communication: can you engage with technical and non-technical audiences? Can you adjust your style to talk and listen using key concepts of emotional and social intelligence? 
  • Financial acumen: Do you have a sense of cost, business performance, return on investment, and monetary balances?

Hopefully it is clear reading these bullets just how far beyond the bench scientists need to expand their skills to stand out amongst the competition.  As overwhelming as it sounds to be a well-rounded, scientists, one of SciPhD’s key methodologies, and the workshop’s second pervasive theme, is developing the STAR method: Taking all of your experiences – what is the Situation you faced, the Task to be completed, the Action you took, and the Results you achieved? To answer these questions, you take your experiences and frame them using the 6-core business and social competencies to produce experience statements. By carefully crafting these statements, you can easily convey both on your resume and during interviews why it is you are the best candidate for the job! While you might be worried that you have less experience than another candidate, crafting careful experience statements is a great way to highlight your unique capabilities and stand out from the crowd of job applicants.

(Day 1) The invitation – getting an interview

By now you’ve developed the dream employee package – you’ve found a job you are well suited for and written experience statements that embody core competencies highlighting you as the perfect candidate – but the next and most difficult step is landing the interview. Despite the remote nature of the workshop, you could feel the tension as the highly anticipated resume building topic was finally discussed.  Resume building is often seen as a frustrating and seemingly unsystematic task of developing a generic document to release in droves upon the pool of hiring managers eagerly awaiting candidates.  However, Randy reminds us that it is worth investing your time in developing a targeted resume for each position to which you apply. For this, SciPhD has developed a fantastic tool called Flamingo. Randy demonstrated how to use this platform to import a job advertisement and “map” it by coloring key words and phrases to sort them in categories of business, social, or technical skills and behaviors. From here, each statement is mapped to the six competencies. The goal is to ensure that the person reviewing your resume will connect your skills to those listed in the job ad. Flamingo’s organization provides a systematic approach where you can identify key job requirements and write your STAR method-based experience statements using language from a job description. This will give you the best possible chance to land an interview and showcase your talent!

(Day 2) The communicator 

Day 2 of the SciPhD workshop shifted gears toward learning how to communicate as a scientist. PhD researchers become well versed in communicating our science through technical writing, publications, research talks and more.. Many of us have even mastered the art of communicating science to non-scientists. However, most have not fully developed what SciPhD calls their four competency levels of communication:

  • Technical literacy
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Social intelligence
  • Style flexibility

As Larry, co-founder and VP of communications for the program, took us through each of these levels he also explained the interdependency between them. Technical literacy references our ability to recognize our audience and explain our research questions or results at the appropriate level for the listener. This is commonly thought of as the “peers vs. grandma” dipole. For example, to my peers I might say, “I utilize X-ray crystallography to interrogate macromolecular structures and characterize their mechanisms of action to aid in structure-based drug discovery and design.”  In contrast, I might explain the same to grandma by saying, “I study protein structures to make medicine.” Worry not – it took 20 minutes of groupwork for each participant in the workshop to whittle down their research to 7 words that grandma can make sense of when she asks “what do you do in school?” over Thanksgiving dinner. That being said, Larry pointed out that these are extreme examples. In reality, we need to adjust our wording to something between these two ends of the spectrum when we are talking to finance executives, hospital patients, peers, or the general public. Mastering this and the next skills are crucial to communicating our worth when interviewing for jobs. 

The next two competency levels SciPhD explored are emotional and social intelligence. Emotional intelligence is taking responsibility for your emotional reactions to different communication situations. As an example, you might recognize that you become angry or defensive when someone questions your research, but an emotionally intelligent person has the ability to shift from an unconscious to conscious mindset, or as Larry termed it, from an expert to a learner role. As experts in our field, we are compelled to spew our knowledge, but it is much more conducive to conversations to become a learner and engage different points of view, ask questions, and come to agreements. With this in mind, you can also become socially intelligent by adding value to other people (answering questions in their context). In short, Larry summarizes that “we should learn to ask questions when we know the answer.”

use our flexibility to adjust our communication to fit the preference of our audience, rather than asking them to adapt to our style.

Finally, we come to the notion of style flexibility. Unconsciously, you might have already recognized that different people learn, interact, and respond to situations differently. You may have even learned about or taken a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test to understand how you best interpret information, as well as how you best communicate. Style flexibility incorporates all the aspects of technical literacy, emotional and social intelligence. Larry’s takeaway message: to communicate most effectively, we need to incorporate all of these competencies and use our flexibility to adjust our communication to fit the preference of our audience, rather than asking them to adapt to our style. 

After an informative and activity-packed day 2 of the SciPhD workshop, we learned many skills related to marketing ourselves and communicating our value to a variety of audiences. But that’s not all, folks! There are still 3 days left of content that focus on developing your people skills (teamwork and collaboration), business skills, and project management skills. Look out for the 2nd half of this post coming soon!

This article was edited by Junior Editor Natalie Losada and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.

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