May 2012

Complementary skills: an introduction

Aruni S. Arachchige Don

No matter what you decide to do with your Ph.D., proficiency in skills other than discipline-specific knowledge and research are important for success in science. In this series, I will cover what I have termed “complementary skills.” So what are complementary skills, and how can you obtain these skills? These are skills in such areas as communication, leadership, management, professionalism, networking and self-promotion.

Mastering these skills while in training will give you that competitive edge whether you pursue a profession inside or outside of academia, especially as there is a surplus of Ph.D.s in life sciences. It is very important for students and postdocs to be proactive and find ways to acquire these skills on their own. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to enhance and shape our own careers.

First, I recommend performing a self-assessment. It can be extremely valuable for understanding your strengths and weaknesses and for determining which areas need attention. In 2009, the National Postdoctoral Association introduced six core competencies and developed The Core Competencies Self-Assessment Checklist. In a 2010 survey of the NPA members, among those who said that they referred to or accessed the contents of the NPA core competencies, 66 percent agreed that the material presented was useful in developing plans for their professional development and career goals. The majority also agreed that the toolkit was easy to understand and navigate and that they would recommend it to others. In addition to the NPA checklist, a number of other self-assessment tools are available online, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strong Interest Inventory, Career Beliefs Inventory, etc.

Institutional responsibilities
Although formalized training in complementary skills may not be available at every institution, it would be great if more graduate and postdoctoral programs in the U.S. offered trainees sufficient opportunities to build up these skills.

Academic institutions also can use the NPA core competencies as a guide to measure the success of their trainees or for improving graduate and postdoctoral training programs. For instance, the postdoctoral program at the New York University School of Medicine currently holds 45 events per year. Keith Micoli, director of the program, has been able to focus all of its events on one of the six competency areas. Micoli also said that his team is revamping its website to display clearly specific resources the postdoctoral program offers for each competency area and how postdocs can access those resources.

It is encouraging to know that academic institutions are starting to take greater responsibility. According to a recent survey conducted by the NPA, “17 out of 74 responding institutions (23 percent) indicated that they provide their postdocs with professional development in the form of the NPA core competencies.” Many graduate programs also offer professional development courses that cover topics such as ethical conduct in research, communication and management issues.

In a recently released report to President Obama, the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended that the NPA core competencies receive particular attention when training future faculty members. Suzanne Pfeffer, president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, also stated in a recent message, “In addition to future faculty seminars, universities need to initiate programs that teach skills that will benefit trainees preparing for diverse career paths – skills in oral and written communication, teamwork, networking, project management and leadership.”

My series
Over the next few months, I will discuss the following topics and share with you resources to improve your skills in these areas:

  • communication,
  • • leadership,
  • • management,
  • • professionalism,
  • • responsible conduct of research,
  • • self-promotion (networking/social media), and
  • • other resources (workshops, seminars, societies and professional groups).

I look forward to covering these important topics. Feel free to provide your comments. Share your thoughts so that we can have an active discussion of these issues.

Related articles
  1. 1. Ainsworth, S.J. (2010) Skills for Success. Pharma Firms Are Seeking Adaptable Scientists with the Aptitudes that Meet New Business Needs. Chemical & Engineering News 88, 65 – 67.
  2. 2. Cyranoski, D., Gilbert, N., Ledford, H., Nayar, A., and Yahia, M. The PhD Factory. Nature 472, 276 – 279.
  3. 3. Bonetta, L. (Mar. 2010) Careers Beyond the Bench., 1267 – 1276.
  4. 4. Sanborn, B.M. (Jan. 2011) A career in academic research – what does it take to succeed?  ASBMB Today, 32 – 33
  5. 5. Jensen, D. G. (Mar. 2012) Tooling Up: Customize Your Training.

Aruni S. Arachchige Don ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

In response to the comments, I would add that developing strong communication, leadership and management skills does not mean that one must sacrifice his or her scientific skills. Being proficient in these areas will only enhance and complement your scientific skills. Take a look at some of the leaders in your respective fields who can effectively communicate scientific information, lead and manage scientific teams in a professional manner, conduct research responsibly, promote their ideas and novel discoveries, all while successfully mentoring the future generation of scientists. It is crucial to train scientists to be well-rounded individuals who have skills above and beyond research skills.

Also, we must not ignore the current trend in science — most Ph.D.-trained scientists graduating from U.S. institutions enter careers outside of academia. I recommend reading the recent PLOS One publication by Sauermann and Roach (May 2012) titled “Science Ph.D. Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement.” This is one reason why leaders in science like Suzanne Pfeffer, president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, suggest that universities initiate programs to teach skills that will benefit trainees pursuing diverse career paths. I encourage comments and feedback, but please sign your name to your comments.


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Great article! I'm looking forward to the rest of the series! There’s no question--development of these skills enables you to have an impact far beyond the individual level. Charles Dungan



What a joke...maybe the problem with science today is that we focus too much on these "complementary skills" to the detriment of "scientific skills."


Very pratical and useful.....hope to see other topics in detail at near future. ..




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