Teamwork and collaboration are expected from scientists. Recently, an increasing number of voices have been asking for explicit training in ‘soft skills’ for university graduates to prepare them for careers both in academia and outside. But what soft skills are most valued by scientists and by recruiters? Are some soft skills more important than others for research collaboration? Are they in fact learnable? How might a postgraduate program be set up to inculcate them? We address these questions using two main sources of evidence. (1) We have been running short courses for postgrads and postdocs within our Research Enrichment Program. We have refined these courses through discussion and reflection over several years. (2) We have surveyed opinion among leaders of research labs.
We assembled a list of 14 soft skills relevant for research teamwork. A survey of research team leaders internationally, with 46 respondents drawn from the highly-cited list in ecology and environment, indicated our list was a good one. Each of the 14 skills was seen as always or often important by a majority of respondents. There were few suggestions for additions. Priority among the 14 skills was quite balanced, with no single skill ranked top by more than 20% of respondents. All of the 14 skills were thought to be learnable, at least to some extent, by a majority of respondents. Our own experience suggests that much of the potential learning is via awareness. We have operated short-courses occupying two half-days where participants are asked to respond to behavioural interview questions. For example, “Tell us about a time when you brought a group of people round to your way of thinking” would be a behavioural question addressing the skill of persuasion. By thinking beforehand how to answer and by reflecting afterwards on different answers, participants grew better able to recognize and articulate their skills, both to themselves and to others.