Some scholars believe it takes 10,000 hours or 10 years to become an expert at anything. Indeed, the path to being a scientist, and eventual expert in a given field, involves years of work to gain a deep conceptual knowledge of a specific discipline and hone research skills. What tends to be missing in this arduous pursuit is an attention to attaining competency in other core areas that extend beyond the lab.
To address this omission, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has compiled a list of core competencies across six areas that postdocs, and other scientists, should strive to obtain throughout their training. Three areas are specific to science but the remaining three involve acquiring general “transferable skills” that can be applied to careers outside research: communication skills, professionalism, and leadership and management.
How can you cultivate these skills as a graduate student or postdoc?
Take advantage of career and professional development programming offered by your institution and professional scientific associations. As an example of the latter, Science Alliance, a program of the New York Academy of Sciences, provides courses, workshops, and seminars covering a wide range of skill sets, like the art of networking and art of speaking science, negotiation strategies and leadership and personal success through self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Similar types of resources are available on your campus through career service centers and postdoctoral affairs offices with many providing one-on-one advising, as well.
In addition to formal training approaches, another way to develop the recommended core competencies, or any other skill you feel you are lacking, is to learn by doing. Need to improve your public speaking skills? Teach, volunteer to give extra departmental seminars, or join your local Toastmasters. Don’t have any leadership or management experience? Become the lab’s radiation safety officer, supervise a junior student, or head up a project for a school or community group. These are just a few examples- the main point is to be proactive and seek out opportunities that will expand your repertoire of functional skills.
No matter how rigorous the program, the journey towards becoming a scientist will not equip you with all the skills needed for future career success. Therefore, be sure to carve out time to develop your personal and professional self outside the lab. Not only will it make you a well-rounded individual prepared for a multitude of careers, these positive “distractions” may even help the 10,000 hours of pipetting and PubMeding go by faster.