Why Non-Technical Skills Matter for STEM Careers

June 27, 2023

People working on a project management plan.
People working on a project management plan.
Source: pxhere.com
While technical skills in science like pipetting, calculating dilutions and knowing how to do protein gel electrophoresis are important, non-technical skills, such as project management, time management and communicating effectively, matter too. It’s important to learn and improve non-technical skills because it provides tools to effectively organize projects and manage a team to generate results, which increases employability, makes you a better scientist and sets you up for success when automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are being introduced in the workplace. The resources included here can help kickstart the process.

Employers Want to Hire Scientists with Strong Non-Technical Skills

According to 37 executives from chemical and pharmaceuticals industries, the most valuable non-technical skills for scientists are collaboration, communication, creativity, intellectual curiosity and having an innovative spirit. Elizabeth Salm, Ph.D., Associate Director of Postdoc Development & Training Grant Support at Georgetown University, teaches project management workshops and emphasizes the importance of project management in being successful in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “Key project management skills, such as the ability to manage timelines, communicate effectively and prioritize tasks, affect progress in the lab and into careers beyond academia. Employers value these skills as they increase productivity and improve teamwork and cohesion within an organization,” Salm said. The article, “Project Management Tips for Researchers,” covers the 5 stages of a project management life cycle and provides tips on how to apply these stages to your research.

Improving Non-technical Skills Makes You a Better Scientist

Learning non-technical skills like time management helps you organize tasks on a weekly and monthly basis, which also teaches you how to prioritize. For example, when you start graduate school or a new job and must juggle the responsibilities that come with it, you may be wondering what to work on and when. There are many tools to help you navigate time management. Implementing time management techniques will help reduce anxiety and improve focus on clear project goals, which makes you a better scientist. 

Other skills like managing a project, leading a team, mentoring up or communicating effectively are needed to facilitate collaboration with others in and outside of the lab. Peter S. Myers, Ph.D., Program Manager of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Washington University School of Medicine, said “Consider your senior project or doctoral dissertation. In order to be successful, you have to propose and lead a project, request specific advice from your faculty advisor and effectively present the results to an interdisciplinary audience. Similarly, when you start a career—say, overseeing research at a biotech company—you will lead a team of scientists, making sure they are meeting their milestones, while simultaneously communicating up to company executives about rational for and progress on different research projects. As a member of the next generation of scientists, these essential relational skills will serve as the foundation to creating more inclusive training experiences for yourself and others. In this way, we can stop the perpetuation of inequitable behaviors and highlight the many identities, perspectives and cultures that contribute to scientific progress every day.” 

Technical Skills Are Becoming Less Important with the Advancements of Automation and AI 

With the introduction of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace, there will also be changes in what skills are required from human workers. A report from McKinsey Global Institute predicts that as automation and AI are implemented into the workforce, the demand to work with machines will become higher. Because of this, there will be a greater need for technological skills. There will also be a higher demand for communication skills and higher-level cognitive skills like creativity, critical thinking, decision making and complex information processing. Also, clinical microbiology laboratories are implementing total laboratory automation to help with large-scale testing, reduce errors in the lab and to keep procedures more consistent. Knowing this information, technical skills could be replaced by automation and AI, and become less important, while non-technical skills become more important. 

Understanding why non-technical skills are essential to your career provides motivation to seek out training programs, workshops and events to improve these skills. The reasons mentioned above can also help convince your mentor/advisor/supervisor to approve opportunities to gain non-technical skills.
The ABRCMS365 workshops on Modern Skills for STEM Careers will provide an opportunity to receive training in project management and leadership, 2 essential areas for success in graduate school and elsewhere. Register by July 18, 2023 to learn about project management skills for research and work and ways to build your leadership skills without formal authority. 

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.