A Soft Skill is Hard to Find

Graduate programs are designed to prepare students in the advanced knowledge-bases and research skills of the disciplines. In the course of graduate study, graduate students learn to design and implement an extended program of research, to collect and analyze data, to critically assess the scholarly or scientific literature, and to communicate in person and in print according to the standards of the field. Gaining these skills is an arduous and time-consuming process, which begins in graduate school, but, because knowledge is always advancing, never really comes to an end. There is no point at which any real researcher gets to say, “Ok, that’s enough, I’m done learning, now I can just apply what I know from here on.”

The repertoire of knowledge, methods, skills, and techniques of a discipline—the focus of our graduate programs—encompasses the so-called “hard” skills that constitute the solid basis of graduate-trained expertise. They are what offer entry into a professional community of scholars, of scientists, of engineers, or of creative artists. In some key respects, they also define your position and reputation within your chosen profession.

But there are also limits to hard skills. In the first place, what if you are trying to enter a profession in which the subject-matter of your discipline is not the primary focus of your professional activity? We know of many instances in which students in, for example, the humanities and arts have gone into careers in business, technology, administration, or government, in which their specific expertise in the study of, say, ancient societies or musical manuscripts or literary texts seem of, at most, peripheral applicability. Or similarly, we see students in scientific fields like cellular biology or astrophysics who apply their data-analysis skills to information that has nothing to do with cells or stars, such as the listener preferences of a music-streaming service or the fluctuating patterns of high-volume financial markets. They couldn’t do the work they do, or as creatively and expertly, as they can, having gained their graduate expertise; but the specific area and topic of their research may be of lesser importance than the holistic nature of their experience of advanced learning and research in graduate school.

Undoubtedly, these students have learned many useful things from acquiring their hard skills, which they can apply in their new lines of work, such as how to read very difficult texts carefully and critically, how to decode ambiguous and fragmentary evidence, how to organize research in cogent ways, or how to analyze data-sets of whatever sort and to find meaningful patterns in them. But often, they have also acquired other skills of a different order that have allowed them to make the transition to other domains of expertise. These are what are known as “soft” skills, which involve such capacities as the ability to negotiate, communicate, collaborate, foster creativity, interpret, translate across linguistic and cultural boundaries, and design new processes and organizations.

Think about it: these path-changing graduate students start from a confident expertise in their given field, but then apply it in areas where their direct experience may be thin or even non-existent. No amount of further expertise in their discipline, however valuable in itself, will carry them over that gap. But their ability to forge meaningful relationships with people of other relevant expertise and to work with them effectively; their ability to creatively stretch beyond their expertise to make educated hunches about next steps; their ability to pitch a hypothesis and inspire others to gather round and start generating new ideas; and their ability to apply provisional “heuristics,” imperfect but practically useful frameworks of thought and action, to make progress amidst incomplete information and uncertainty—such soft skills may be just what an “expert” needs to be successful in situations in which expertise isn’t everything. And, to be frank, such situations abound in public life, business, design, entrepreneurship, and organizational life—many of the areas in which our graduate students will pursue their careers.

Of course, not every graduate student will go on from their studies to work in the tech industry, or in a non-profit solving worldly problems, or run institutions and manage teams. Many will go into professional life right at the heart of their scholarly and scientific disciplines, working as professors, researchers, and teachers, continuing on intellectual paths they forged in graduate school. As academic and research professionals, certainly, they will be judged according to the exercise of their hard skills: their research, their publications, their grants, the quality of their teaching will weigh heavily in their reputation and the advancement of their careers. Why should they, then, worry about soft skills?

The truth is that even the most rigorous institutions of scholarship and knowledge are complex societies of people, their commitments, their feelings, and their actions (not just buildings, course schedules, lab equipment, publications, databases, etc.). Much of the academic “life of the mind,” indeed, takes place in social contexts as face-to-face interaction, communication, and shared work with others engaged in similar pursuits. Anyone who has felt grateful to a good advisor or teacher, felt supported in a hard moment by an understanding peer, been empowered by a great team of collaborators, or been inspired by a genuine leader knows that these high moments of academic life do not happen just because the people involved are super-smart (though it’s great when they are that too!). It’s that they are emotionally, organizationally, and socially smart. They know how to reflect on and articulate their most cherished animating values; to communicate and negotiate with others to achieve their goals; to work through differences and difficulties; to keep their goals in focus, even despite setbacks; to organize and manage work in common; and to inspire people to follow their lead even into unknown places.

Hard skills are hard to acquire. They take hard work: long hours of study, research, thinking, and writing. But as I noted at the outset, graduate programs are designed to help you develop them and academic life revolves around them. Hard skills are hard to acquire, but in universities at least, they are not so hard to find. But where in the university can you find soft skills? Where can you gain the soft skills you need to succeed, whether you decide to change your career course following graduation or whether you pursue an academic career in your field? Soft skills, it seems, are rather harder to find.

Part of the difficulty of finding them, however, is that they are right in front of us, yet tacit in our daily interactions. Certainly, to take one example, we feel better when we are offered an attentive reading of our work (even when it is sharply critical) than when the reading is rote or undiscerning of our intentions (even when it is superficially positive). But how often do we reflect upon what really goes into a productive engagement with our writing, and think about what is not helpful to us? And even further, how often do we try to apply these reflections in our own readings of others’ work, whether it is work by students in our sections, our peers’ writing that they have shared, or the publications of those in the profession that we are reading as fellow scholars in the field? What it is that, in all the years of graduate study, we most valued in a good advisor’s advising? And what can we learn from these privileged moments, when the energy was sparking between a student and an advisor? Often in the rush of all the things we have to do as students and scholars, we let the opportunity for such reflection slip. Yet we do well to stop and pay more attention to how we do the things we do—for it is through such attention and reflection that many of the best, most valuable soft skills can be learned.

For some, it is a daily habit like keeping a teaching or research journal that becomes the means of taking this reflection time. A journal is different from a notebook, where you are recording things from your reading or your research work for later reference. A journal is where you capture passing observations about how you and others did things; how you felt about what happened; how you evaluate the quality of your actions or interactions; observations on the role that you yourself played in a set of events or an outcome, positive or negative; and thoughts about ways in which you might improve your situation, your organization, or your realization of your values. The beauty of a journal is that it need not take a lot of time or take too much out of your day; it is a casual and informal thing, almost an indiscernible habit worked into the interstices of your busy life. But over the course of time, especially as you look back over it, it becomes a repertory of your reflections—almost like learning a few vocabulary words a day in the (surprisingly!) foreign language of your own inner thoughts and feelings about your work and colleagues. Over time, almost without your having taken notice, you will have developed your soft skills in ways that become applicable in your daily and work life.

It is, however, also possible to acquire soft skills in a more formal way, and it is worth availing yourself of the various opportunities that present themselves at UC Santa Cruz. These include opportunities for training in skills that the Graduate Division and the Graduate Student Commons (GSC) offers—workshops on professional skills, public communication forums such as the Grad Slam contest and the Graduate Research Symposium, and Graduate Leadership Certificate Program. Also, opportunities to develop your pedagogical skills, through programs such as those offered by the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning (CITL) and the Institute for Science and Engineering Educators (ISEE), are rich sites for acquiring soft skills. Being able to effectively engage and communicate knowledge with students is profoundly involved with the “how” of interaction, as well as the “what” of subject-matter, so teaching is one of the ways in which your soft skills are tested in practice. Lastly, practical experience in leadership, such as offered by the graduate student government group, the Graduate Student Association, or by the governing board of the Graduate Student Commons, can similarly offer invaluable opportunities to develop your skills more formally—while serving the whole campus community with your talents and energies.

The recently deceased mathematician Stephen Hawking wrote, “There’s no way to remove the observer—us—from our perceptions of the world.” He may well have been thinking of the entanglement of the observer in the observed in the strange world of quantum physics. But he may have also been thinking about an analogous entanglement in the strange world of our academic institutions, the intimate connections between the knower and the known. Soft skills are ultimately about the quality of the observer in the perception of the world around us. Our responsibility is to care for that observer, Hawking’s “Us,” intentionally cultivating its best qualities. For the quality observer is indeed no small factor in discovery and intellectual innovation. It may be the crucial thing in opening up—or when lacking, closing down—the new perceptions of the world we as scholars and scientists seek.