IR Careers Political Science Careers

How I Developed 3 Soft Skills to Improve My Career


I’ve been reviewing a lot of CVs lately, and while formatting and being succinct are things I obsess over, finding a way to demonstrate your soft skills is something I tell folks to try and include as well. Are you dependable, self-motivated and empathetic? Do you have a unique way to deal with stress? What are some things that make you stand out?

Soft versus Hard skills

When we write a CV, we typically list our Education, Work Experience and some other Skills and Achievements that we think employers would want to know about us (e.g. foreign language, computer programs, public service). We rely on our CVs to highlight our hard skills and communicate our professional narrative. These formatted documents convey little about our soft skills, however. But oftentimes, our soft skills are what lands you the job or gets you promoted.

Ok, what’s the difference between a hard skill and a soft skill? Hard skills are qualifications that you acquire during your education and executing while on the job. Examples of hard skills include: analysis, programming, research, teaching, administrative, and writing. I think of soft skills as a combination of traits that can help you perform your hard skills more effectively in the workplace. Examples of soft skills include: communication, creativity, leadership, teamwork, work ethic and time management.

So why am I just learning about the importance of soft skills now? Well, for one, non-corporate worlds like the ones scholars and researchers navigate, prioritize rigorous analysis and independent study. The bulk of the work we do is carried out alone. Graduate students do not collaborate with others when they are developing their research design and writing their dissertations. They often only seek the approval of their advisors. It’s not until after their studies and on the job market that they are launched into a professional environment where developing relationships with peers and mentors becomes valuable.

Interpersonal skills and self-awareness are traits that employers in the corporate world covet when hiring and training employees. However, people in my field of Political Science and International Relations don’t talk discuss these aspects of career building during their studies or at work. We do not have training seminars for conflict management and managerial excellence like they do at large tech companies or management consulting firms. I believe that graduate programs need to provide training for professional development. (*If your university does, I’d love to know about it in the Comment below!)

The truth is, soft skills are all around us. For sure, scientists and academics may be more socially-handicapped than journalists or marketing experts, where communication skills are more a priority. But being able to convey your research goals to peers and offering sustained feedback and support are things that make you a great colleague. You don’t have to work in a team to be a good team player. You can be the one that people look to for advice or an honest conversation. It’s not too late to develop your soft skills!

Build a few soft skills now

There are a ton of great soft skills that you may want to possess. But just like hard skills, you can’t have them all. But I’ve found that there are ways to experiment with what works best for you, and slowly over time, these traits become learned behavior. After my first job after grad school, I did some self-reflection and came up with three soft skills I felt like I lacked, and then made the decision to improve upon them.

1. Initiative

In graduate school, I always wondered why some of my peers were offered interesting research assistant positions. Maybe it was just luck or writing a great paper on a topic that the professor was currently working on. It didn’t dawn on me to speak with my professors about their research or ask if there was anything that they needed help with. I think to my detriment, I’m the kind of person that doesn’t want to bother people.

One semester, I had a student that came to my office hours early in the term to simply pick my brain about other courses she should take. She also asked about the career options I had weighed before deciding on academia. Students rarely came to office hours unless there was a paper deadline or after a test to dispute their grade. It was refreshing, and I found myself googling internships for her because I wanted to help. As a result, I approach people now that I want to learn from. I take initiative and put myself in a position to grow.

2. Curiosity

I like routines, it builds a structure to my day. But in a work environment where I type away at a desk for 10+ hours a day, it can get really boring and exhausting. After writing and revising, I didn’t have the mental capacity to do much else. I wanted to work on new questions or write something non-academic, but I just didn’t know where to start.

One thing I really liked about the job search process was talking to people about how they got to where they are now. At the peak of my job hunt, I carve out time each week for at least two 15-minute informational interviews with people working in politics and analysis. It was inspiring to hear their stories, and I wanted to get that feeling back about the work I was currently doing. So, I decided to implement these calls into my routine — I now reach out to one person in my network for a quick call each month to see what they are working on or any new collaborations that are excited about. (You can come up with a different set of questions!) These conversations help me to stay curious and has also allowed me to develop career goals that I wouldn’t have thought of one my own.

3. Time management

Digital calendars have transformed my life. But color-coding meetings and tasks are not what I’m talking about here. Politely saying no to requests and time-consuming projects was something that took years to implement. I’m convinced that the most efficient people are those that do not have trouble saying no to things. They are decisive about what tasks must be accomplished first before taking on new projects.

These days, I still have to work at saying no. But I often do so by saying that I would love to work together at a later date (and tell them when in the year that might be). This keeps the window of opportunity slightly ajar. But just don’t overdo it — you don’t want to be seen as a stressed-out “No” person down the line. Managing your time successfully does not mean doing everything you can. I now think it means doing your main tasks really well.

Applying for jobs or want to discuss post-PhD options? Our Ilkmade Experts are here to help. From deciding on which programs are aligned with your goals to application review and interview prep, we’ve got you covered. Book a free 15-minute consultation here to see how we can support you through the tough decisions.

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International Relations Jobs Search Online– Updated April 2021


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