Outstanding skills of the academic researcher and how to improve them

There are several outstanding skills that academic researchers develop and use during their career, sometimes inadvertently. These are in addition to an expert knowledge of the state-of-the-art of a field, and of how the public R&D system works, which could be said that are the competences taken for granted for an academic researcher.

The usual research day-to-day activities have a big impact on key skills hugely helpful for a successful career as a scientist, in or outside of academia. Things like planning how to solve a problem with limited information, how to present results to your peers, or how to partner within a well-functioning team, are actually critical to perform successfully in many jobs. As an academic researcher you can reflect on your level on these and plan on how to improve them. Also, being aware of them and where you stand, can make a great difference when you have to talk about yourself in a job interview.

A couple of weeks ago in our lab meeting we talked about four of these skills or competences and discussed a few practical actions to improve them. As trainee or mentor, you can work actively to enhance your performance with them but also that of your team.

(i) Analysis

As an academic research you are quite used to identifying a problem, imagining possible solutions, planning work on the one that has the most chances of being successful, and defining how to check if the solution is working. You gather information about the state-of-the-art science, about available resources, your team, your facilities, and so on. Project planning, and the agility to jump into something new and get things done when the situation is ambiguous, is a highly valued skill. Even if a researcher is not aware of it, their daily job trains them for this comprehensively. This skill can also be described as a problem-solving skill, or more generally as a (strategic) analysis skill.

There are many resources online to work on this. A good and easy start point can be to read about SWOT – CAME analysis, a much used tool for long term planning that can help us be more aware of how we make decisions and visualize possible future pathways in our big projects and lines of research.

highlighted skilladvice to improve your level
Analysis (defining goals, problem solving)be aware of the process of (strategic) analysis when planning and executing your work

(ii) Excellence

There are three aspects of working in the academic research field that I believe can be said that coach you to be excellent, that is, strict with the quality of your work and that of others: first, the scientific method demands evidence, which is strong only with high quality results; second, researchers tend to specialize and be proficient on particular techniques, equipment or knowledge; and third, academic researchers tend to have flexible schedules where they can more or less organize their own work, which means they have flexibility to reflect on their own methods and priorities, and plan how to be better at them.

highlighted skilladvice to improve your level
High thresholds for quality of resultsAsk yourself about the reproducibility of your results.
Proficiency on techniques, equipment or knowledgeFocus on improving your proficiency on particular techniques / equipment / knowledge where you can excel.
Work routines: planning and working load dynamicsAsk yourself how you organize your work and your methodology to plan tasks, daily in particular. Reflect on prioritizing. If your work (consistently) needs doing weekends/late nights, your system is flawed. If you continue to do it, then you are hiding the underlying flaws, which will not fix the problem. Sticking to a reasonable working load is key.

(iii) Communication

People may have interesting ideas but if they cannot be communicated, written down, told, in a way that is easily understood they are lost. This is critical in research as people strive to get funded by telling others about their ideas. Writing abilities for instance take a lot of practice to improve, and this must be addressed as early as possible in the career of academic researchers.

Seasoned academic researchers are usually able to write with fluency, legibility, and clarity; are able to speak in front of an audience with good articulation, expressivity, and their spoken English is very good.

highlighted skilladvice to improve your level
In written comms: fluency, legibility, clarity.Write and read a lot  (any kind of text, fiction included)
In oral comms: articulation, expressivityPractice every chance available, join a performing arts group
English: fluency, accentWatch and read as much as possible in English

(iv) Human interactions

Collaborative dynamics have been always a feature of academic research, and without numbers to prove it at hand I would say that much more now that say twenty years ago. Partnering with others to complement our knowledge and resources, team dynamics, are skills where successful researchers really excel. In Academia, as in most other jobs, you often find that circumstances or other people choose who you work with. So, you may be stuck with people and work you don’t enjoy. This happens often, but in Academia, especially if you are a PI, you are quite able to decline collaborations with people who will have a negative impact on your well-being, even if it would benefit your career. It’s not worth it. When possible, we all should only work with people we enjoy working with. This agency is one of the big advantages of academia and being aware of it and learning how to do it with elegance is also in my experience a common trait of successful researchers.

There are other very important competences related to human psychology that don’t often come with the experience of academic research, such as acknowledging diversity in personalities and backgrounds, knowing how to read others’ personalities, or establishing trust.

Outside of Academia the diversity of backgrounds in a similar role is much higher. In most academic environments most have very similar paths. Age is much less important than in academia. Maybe in Academia it would be good to plan more for activities to just get to know people, which in my opinion is much more important than most researchers imagine. As an individual researcher or as a lab it can be very useful to set up meetings with people you don’t know in the organization you work or in your field, just to get to know them. Half an hour chats are so valuable to establishing networks. That great research paper you just read? Why not send them an email to ask for a quick chat? The worst thing they can say is no.

highlighted skilladvice to improve your level
Human interactions
collaborative dynamics: partnering, team dynamicswhen possible, only work with people you enjoy working with. Decline collaborations with people who will have a negative impact on your well-being, even if you think it might benefit your career.
human psychologyacknowledge diversity, work to know oneself and others’ personalities, ask yourself what is needed to establish trust.
networkingwork on your “first-contact” and “follow-up” strategies

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