Seeking social scientists

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Credit: G. Grullón

For scientists looking for a job in industry, a strong research record is the first requirement. These days, though, with so many strong candidates for the few positions available, it can be difficult for hiring managers to make a decision based on scientific merit alone. To distinguish between candidates, interviewers may focus more on soft skills like communication and social savvy when making their decisions, according to a Chemical & Engineering News article by Linda Wang. “It’s not enough for candidates to have all the technical qualifications for a job: They also need to be versatile and well-rounded and fit in with the company culture,” Wang writes. This idea is not particularly new, but it does raise some serious questions: Is the focus on “fit,” intentionally or not, likely to limit diversity, and are companies pushing too far into personal rather than professional territory when evaluating applicants?

Wang describes a variety of strategies companies are using to help them find scientists who meet these broader social criteria. “Mark McAuliffe, global staffing manager at Waters, an analytical instrument and software company in Milford, Mass., says the company has shifted its interviewing strategy to give candidates more of an opportunity to tell their story and share their successes. ‘Communication skills are a linchpin to success,’ he says.” Fair enough—but Stephen Munk, president and CEO of a Michigan-based contract pharmaceutical manufacturer called Ash Stevens, takes this idea a step further by having dinner with his candidates the night before their interview so that he can observe their social behavior. “I want to see how they interact in a social situation,”  Munk says. “You don’t want somebody with poor manners and habits representing your company.”

Before companies start insisting that candidates conform to the preexisting corporate culture, they need to make sure their houses are in order and that their company cultures are truly and deeply inclusive.

This emphasis on qualities beyond research output may be music to savvy scientists’ ears, but it could cause others to be left behind. There are many types of people in science, including more than a few who fulfill the old stereotype: socially awkward, perhaps a bit odd, but brilliant. Hiring strategies that consider communication and socializing as important as scientific attributes could exclude such scientists from industrial research. Candidates from cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds not well-represented at the company could also be excluded, to the disadvantage of both candidate and company. (Research has shown that diversity of perspective, not conformity, is good for business.)

“I see it as a double-edged sword,” wrote Chemjobber, a Ph.D. industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market, in an e-mail to Science Careers. “I see it as a positive, in that allowing for soft skills to be evaluated equally may offer some opportunities to researchers at smaller institutions who may not have advantages in resources, instrumentation or corporate recruiting. … [A]ny institution can train its students and postdoctoral fellows to be clear, effective communicators and good listeners. I can also see negative aspects: focusing on soft skills rather than technical skills may inadvertently disadvantage those who do not have English as a first language, for example.” 

Before companies start insisting that candidates conform to the preexisting corporate culture, they need to make sure their houses are in order and that their company cultures are truly and deeply inclusive. Otherwise, a focus on a candidate’s “fit” may lead to hiring people “just like us,” to the inappropriate exclusion of other highly qualified applicants for reasons that are not strictly professional.

Similar concerns arise from an increased focus on credentials earned outside of work. Gary Allred, president of a contract research organization called Synthonix in Wake Forest, North Carolina, says that “[b]eing well-rounded often means having interests outside of one’s research,” so he recommends that applicants highlight their extracurricular activities. Someone who likes working on cars, he suggests, might be able to help fix machinery in the lab, and a creative-minded applicant might contribute to marketing efforts at a small company. Wang cites a recent industrial hire who during her interview received compliments for articles she had written for a chemistry magazine for undergraduates, which she had included on her resume. 

Advice like this, especially when it comes from employers, whose interests are somewhat different from the candidate’s interests, should be taken seriously but also be subjected to scrutiny. An employer’s goal is to learn as much as possible about you—including information that could be used to screen you out. If your hobby is mountain climbing, or collecting comic books, should you put that on your resume or mention it during the interview? What about organizing a political campaign or playing in a string quartet or a heavy metal band?

Mountain climbing may indicate an ability to take risks, which could be seen as positive—or it might suggest that you’ll want lots of time off to travel. Organizing a political campaign requires impressive skills—but what if the hiring manager doesn’t share your political views? It’s hard to know how a hiring manager would perceive an interest in heavy metal music or comic books. The signals your activities send are open to interpretation, so it’s important to take care when deciding what to share. 

Furthermore, one could argue—convincingly—that what you do on your own time is not your employer’s business. In a January article, Tooling Up columnist David Jensen drew attention to an old movie, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which the protagonist, Tom Rath, played by Gregory Peck, refuses to play along with the protobehavioral interview he’s being subjected to. He “decides not to bare his soul and turns in a one-paragraph statement saying that the only thing that the employer needs to know is that he can do this job, and that what matters most is that he has applied for a job at their company,” Jensen writes. “It's an affront to the human resources guy, but he gets the position anyway because the boss likes his style.”

As with all career advice, it’s important to consider the source and make decisions consistent with your own self-interest and values.

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