Fitting Interpersonal Skills into Academia

There is much talk in higher education about the importance of transferable skills. For a PhD student this means that you receive training in things beyond your own particular field of research. Typically this would include being required to consider your writing and presentation skills; additionally, maybe you would be exposed to ideas of project management or examining your entrepreneurial side and learning how to write a business plan. Seldom, at this level, does it mean considering people skills, handling negotiations or how to be persuasive in difficult situations. Role play may also rarely feature. Yet this latter group of subjects are also important skills, whatever field of employment you ultimately are destined to join.

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a presentation to Schlumberger’s Faculty of the Future on the topic of ‘Building a Career and a Team’ – their title not mine! Before I say more about the thought processes that went into writing that talk, let me say a little about this programme for early career women. Schlumberger, like L’Oreal with their For Women in Science International Fellowships, are investing heavily in young women in academia: young women from all parts of the globe, particularly the developing world. These fellowships are not intended for the richer nations where there are already many opportunities, but for those countries whose educational structures are not as well developed and where there is untapped and unfulfilled talent. So each year Schlumberger Foundation funds about 60 individuals to take up either PhD or postdoctoral appointments in countries in Western Europe and the USA. The workshop I was invited to speak at was for those working in Europe, who came to spend several days at a residential course in Cambridge. This was a chance for them to share experiences with others in similar situations even if widely diverse fields of research, to listen to speakers from different backgrounds and to get a little recreational time to explore Cambridge.

When I was invited to talk to them on my assigned topic, my first reaction of course was ‘what do I know about these things?’ Yes, impostor syndrome struck again, as it so often does. However, as I have made plain on these pages before, there is little point in giving in to that nasty little internal voice that can be so destructive, so I sat down to consider what should be included under the title of ‘Building a career and a team’. What pearls of wisdom could I summon from my singularly unplanned career to illustrate how one should actually plan? Of course, therein lies the first bullet point:

  • Many/most individuals at whatever level in their profession will have arrived there by a combination of chance, serendipity and luck, just as much as by forethought, brilliance and grim determination.

Scratch the surface of someone at the top of the pecking order and you are likely to find someone vaguely surprised by what has happened to them.

Following on from that is the corollary

  • Often the most important decisions are made without noticing.

By that I mean that incidents that with hindsight turn out to have been crucial and key turning points, may have been made by accident or without due attention. On what basis did you choose your PhD supervisor? A well-known professor of my acquaintance confided to me once that his decision had been made based on the fact that one particular potential supervisor smiled at him as he walked into the room. On such little things can one’s whole life turn (as, in a sense, it did in his case).

That isn’t to say that you can’t take some control for your progression. Thinking hard about what skills you need to master to accomplish the next stage, where to go for advice and trying to build up a support group of friends, peers and those just a bit ahead in the game are all things that are up to you to manage. Mentoring is all very well, but mentoring schemes may not work if you happen to be assigned someone with whom you have little in common and you rub each other up the wrong way, so finding less formal routes to get advice is always a wise thing to do. So point number 3 would be

  • Know who to go to for advice and build up a network of supportive friends and colleagues (not necessarily in your immediate group environment). If you can find colleagues at different levels of seniority, so much the better.

Then there is the team-building aspect, which is where the people skills I refer to above enter. I never had any training in this, but I expect there are courses out there. Some of it is common sense, but it does require an awareness of both yourself and your own natural approach. Consultants would no doubt devise psychometric tests to analyse one’s intrinsic style, but I think one can make some progress without such external labelling. The kinds of questions that I personally, in my amateur way, think matter when it comes to considering how to tackle a burgeoning group, include

–      Do you want to keep things formal or informal?

–      Do you get more out of people by being forceful or relaxed?

–      How are you going to handle the need to criticise someone?

–      Are you comfortable heaping praise on others, and do you think you know when to do this judiciously?

–      How friendly is it wise to be with the team? Do you socialise with them or does that damage your authority?

–      Do you keep brief records of conversations and progress or simply rely on memory and good will?

–      How can you keep the team working well together?

–      How will you handle interpersonal conflict?

Everyone will have their own set of answers to these and many more questions which defines their approach. But the one that I think is central to getting the most out of people is the one about praise. There are those who think the only way to get people to work hard is to criticize their attempts endlessly; there are parents who think that is the right way to bring up their children too. I am not of that school of thought. I think students need encouragement, just as much as young children, and that constantly saying in essence ‘pull up your socks, you’re not slogging your guts out hard enough‘ is simply demoralising. Of course sometimes one has to say something along those lines, but if at other times you are at least a little enthusiastic then I believe the criticism will have more impact when it comes. There is a third way of doing things on this front. Never to say anything good or bad, just grunt when results are presented and set the next round of agreed targets. I have never been comfortable with that kind of stiff upper lip neutrality, but it is far from uncommon.

Of course, there are students and students. Some may themselves react better or worse to these different styles. For some, constant gushing praise may just be embarrassing rather than uplifting; for some of the bone-idle variety, incessant criticism may be a requisite if any results are ever to be produced at all. Students, like supervisors, are people. They need to know where they stand: whether the data they have is likely to turn into a thesis chapter, whether their null results can be incorporated and are they on target to finish on time, for instance. Students should not be left uncertain as to their progress, but too often they are as PhDcomics frequently pillories graphically. Building teams is as much about utilising interpersonal skills to get the most out of people as sheer intellectual brilliance. Unfortunately, too often these facts are forgotten in academia.






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3 Responses to Fitting Interpersonal Skills into Academia

  1. nicky Blunt says:

    enjoyed your interview with Jim..very much

    Dr Emmanuel Revici combined physics with biology to successfully cure cancer..

    Perhaps you can add to his breakthru’s

    Einstein commented that he was a genius..!

  2. W. Hale says:

    ““The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” – William Arthur Ward

    I wonder if it would make sense to know/ think about 1. what a scientist should preferably do, 2. how he/she should act, and 3. why. I wonder if making these things clear, and/or giving priority to the answers of these things, could lead to a different take on, let’s say, “interpersonal skills in academia”.

    Let’s say that a scientist should try and come to a certain understanding of a certain phenomenon by using logical argumentation, critical thinking, devising of experiments, analysing data, etc. (a possible answer to 1.). Only then, you could look at 2. how he/she should act, and 3. why. So, concerning “interpersonal skills in academia”: I wonder how these relate to what a scientist should do, how he/ she should do (to then enhance the probability of achieving 1.). and 3. why this could/ should be so.

    Taking it to an extreme (to try and make my point): why should a scientist even have any interpersonal skills (aside from not shouting at co-workers /phd- students, not spilling coffee over a co-workers new attire, and stuff like that) ? What are “interpersonal skills”, and should they even be important in academia in the first place, or should priority be given to other things/ characteristics/ processes? Couldn’t a scientist use logical argumentation, critical thinking, devising experiments, writing up the results, etc. all by his/ herself ? And, why even take advise from a pdh-supervisor, if it is not clear how this advise relates to the answers to 1., 2., and 3. (should these types of questions be seen as useful to think about/ give priority to in academia) ?

    “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein

  3. Pingback: The joy of having a research group | elliehighwood

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