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So You Think You Have Skills


This is the second article in a series designed to help you create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) using myIDP, a new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career-planning process, please visit

When Keren started her Ph.D. program nearly 5 years ago, the prospect of completing her thesis and setting a date for her defense seemed far off. But now the date was approaching—and the thesis and the defense weren't the only things weighing on her mind. She was also thinking, “What next?”

The first step in honing your skill set is figuring out what you’re good at and what needs to be improved.

Until recently, Keren had assumed she’d pursue a postdoctoral position, work hard, and eventually land a tenure-track position at a research university. But now, with academic job prospects looking grim, she realized that she should investigate some alternatives in case the academic research track didn’t work out.

If you’re like Keren, you’ve spent years building the research and technical skills needed to complete your training and move into a research career. But you may not have given much thought to the other skills you’ve picked up along the way, how you might apply them to careers inside and outside of academe, and what additional expertise you're likely to need in order to establish your career, whatever it ends up being.

Taking stock of your skills

The first step in honing your skill set is figuring out what you’re good at and what needs to be improved. The myIDP skills assessment was designed to help you do just that. Created specifically for scientists, this assessment includes the knowledge, skills, and abilities emphasized in graduate and postdoctoral training and needed to succeed in a research career. It also encompasses skills that aren't a formal part of most doctoral science training but are fundamental to obtaining—and keeping—a wide range of science-related jobs. Derived from the National Postdoctoral Association's list of postdoctoral core competencies, the myIDP skills assessment has seven categories: scientific knowledge, research skills, communication, leadership and management, professionalism, responsible conduct of research, and career development. These skill areas—and the specific skills in each area—are described below. (The boldface phrases correspond to skills listed for self-evaluation at myIDP.)

Scientific knowledge

To succeed in any discipline, you need to know the content. For scientists, this means both a broad-based knowledge of science and a deep knowledge of a specific research area. But that's not sufficient because science is dynamic; that knowledge base changes as researchers learn new things. So, to be competitive, you need to be able to critically evaluate the scientific literature, integrate new information about your field into your existing knowledge base, and identify gaps that are ripe for new investigation.

Research skills

Whether you work at the bench or in the field, you must have the research and technical skills required to execute your studies. Over the course of your doctoral training, you need to become proficient in study design, the appropriate statistical analysis of your data, and interpreting the results. Throughout your scientific career, you’ll face intellectual and technical challenges that will call upon your ability to think creatively and propose innovative solutions to scientific problems. And like it or not, publications are the coin of the realm in science, so once you've done great work, you have to publish it. You should become familiar with the publishing standards in your discipline, acquire practice writing and submitting papers for publication and dealing with reviews, and take advantage of opportunities to serve as a reviewer.


By the time you get to graduate school, you should have mastered basic writing, editing, speaking, and presentation skills; if you haven’t, this should be a major and immediate focus of your skills development, because communication skills are highly valued in all careers. If you’re pursuing a research career, aim for expertise in writing scientific publications and grant proposals and giving technical talks and poster presentations. You’ll need to be at least moderately proficient in these areas to complete graduate and postdoctoral work and to compete for faculty positions and some research administration roles.

Communicating science to lay audiences is an important skill for all scientists because, if called upon, we all need to be ready to explain our work or demonstrate the value of public investment in research. But this set of skills is especially important for scientists who work with students, patients, policymakers, and the public. Public communication is a world apart from writing manuscripts and conference posters, and it takes a lot of practice. Expect to trade your technical jargon for language that's direct and concrete, to focus on the most essential and interesting elements of your work, and to tailor your message to your audience.

If you’re planning for a teaching-focused position at a 4-year college, high school, or museum (for example), acquiring expertise in this area should be a point of emphasis. But you will benefit from teaching experience and training even if you intend to pursue a career that's more focused on research.

Mentoring is another key skill to cultivate. It’s especially important for scientists in teaching and advisory positions, and it’s essential for anyone seeking a leadership or management role. But mentoring others isn't the only aspect of mentoring that matters; learning how to be mentored is important, too. The support and guidance of more established scientists—and also peers—will greatly facilitate your career progress. So if you’re not already comfortable reaching out to others for assistance and advice, you should look for opportunities to do this and begin forging relationships with potential mentors.

No matter what path you take, at some point you’ll have to navigate a difficult conversation. This might include asking for a promotion or raise, negotiating your start-up package, or resolving a dispute with a co-worker. Skilled communicators handle these conversations with confidence, grace, and diplomacy.

Management and leadership

In any position that involves managing people, you need to know how to facilitate effective teamwork and manage operations. The necessary competencies include planning and organizing projects; delegating responsibilities; providing instruction, guidance, and feedback to your team; and handling conflicts that arise between students or employees. Time management is an important skill for everyone, but it’s especially important for managers balancing several projects while overseeing a staff that relies on them for timely assistance and feedback. Moreover, good leaders don’t just supervise their employees; they create a vision and goals for their teams, motivate and inspire progress toward those goals, and serve as role models by demonstrating the behaviors they want others to display, learn from, and pass on.


Professionalism means adhering to the rules and regulations of your workplace and demonstrating workplace etiquette. It also means being a good colleague by fulfilling your commitments, meeting deadlines, and fostering good workplace relationships. Professionalism extends beyond your laboratory or office and into your institution and scientific discipline. You may be expected to serve on institutional or professional society committees, participate in extracurricular departmental functions, or serve on editorial and advisory boards. These activities are a great way to network, gain experience, and demonstrate your commitment to your field, and they can be very important to your professional advancement. And all these activities require—or at least greatly benefit from—professionalism.

Responsible conduct of research

The scientific research enterprise is built on a foundation of trust, and each of us must be committed to maintaining its integrity. Careful record-keeping is paramount: Scientific records should provide sufficient information to allow others to replicate your work. Researchers need to be well-versed in data ownership and sharing standards, so that they know when it is and is not appropriate to access, modify, and share data, and what rules they should follow when doing so. They must also adhere to the rules regulating research with humans and animals. They must understand and adhere to standards for authorship: What contributions must one make to a project to be listed as an author? What determines authorship order? How should work by other scientists be cited to avoid plagiarism? You should be able to identify and manage research misconduct and real or perceived conflicts of interest when you encounter them. Failure to manage these issues well could damage your reputation and lead to poor performance evaluations and even termination.

Career development

The last group of skills in the myIDP skills assessment is not specific to science. Rather, these are skills that help you improve your ability to explore available career options, make a positive impression on potential employers, and land the job you want. Perhaps the most important of such skills is networking; you should take advantage of the many opportunities your training offers to connect with other people, whether at department seminars, happy hours, or conferences. Professional networks often spark collaborations and lead to job opportunities. They can also make you a better scientist.

While still a graduate student, you should start to become familiar with the career exploration resources available to you. These include the career counselor at your university, your postdoc office, online resources such as Science Careers, and the library. myIDP lists an extensive collection of career resources (free, private registration required for access). Although you may not be ready to start applying for jobs, you should learn what you’ll need to do to create a competitive application and begin adding relevant experiences to your CV or resume. If you haven’t had practice interviewing or negotiating, you may want to read up on effective techniques or take a workshop or seminar.

Using the myIDP self-assessment scale

When using myIDP to conduct your self-assessment, you’ll be asked to rate your proficiency in each skill and knowledge area on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is “highly deficient” and 5 is “highly proficient.” The assessment will be most helpful if you use the full range of scores—that is, don't hesitate to assign yourself a 1 or a 5. Rating just a few items as a "1" will help distinguish the skills that need the most improvement, and rating just a few items as a "5" will help discern the skills you are best at. Although you might find it helpful to solicit input from your mentor, colleagues, or even family and friends, this scale is intended to be your personal subjective assessment of whether your skills are appropriate for your level of training.

Next steps

After completing the myIDP skills assessment, you’ll be able to compare your skills to those needed in various scientific careers. Some of these skills can be honed in the context of your lab work or teaching responsibilities, while others may require you to explore learning and professional opportunities outside the lab. The NPA Postdoctoral Core Competencies includes a list of resources to help develop many of the skills described above.

As you approach the end of your training, it's important not to lose focus. But it's equally important to set aside some time to prepare for the next phase of your career.

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