Beyond technical know-how: Developing the people skills that are critical to success

Summer in academia is not well-understood. What do we really do? First, many educators are not paid during the summer and need to find additional ways to support their families if their normal pay spread out over 12 months instead of nine doesn’t cover the bills. That can be tricky if one wishes to work in the field during that time. Frankly, I’ve been fortunate this summer to have recruited a few students who were interested in gaining experience in research—one from India, one from Costa Rica, and others from various parts of the United States. Each of these students has a different level of experience, interest, and focus, so working with them to get as much out of the summer experience as possible is very important and can be a bit challenging.

They were all ready to work and get a few ambitious things done. While I support those goals and ambitions, I also have encouraged them to get to know each other. We have weekly meetings; we all interact via GroupMe; and I’ve learned they have been meeting up for coffee and meals and to go places. I encouraged everyone to go to a Frank Lloyd Wright house that is across the street from campus, and we will be going to the local zoo and sharing a meal at a popular pizza place nearby. They were wondering about the way I’ve managed the group, but they now have realized this is a great way to get to know others and to learn more about themselves.

One student shared that she liked learning what grad school would be like. She had to pace herself, although we made sure the weekly meetings keep them all reporting out and sharing cool things. She’s happy to have been able to have this summer experience and now is encouraged as we have discussed continuing this collaboration at her home institution. Essentially, her research adviser and I will be collaborating on a few interesting ideas that we can contribute to from different angles.

Another student was concerned about being lonely. She has found a few friends, has learned about a different software package that works well for what she is doing, and has seen a little of the area as she’s willing to venture off campus with other like-minded students.

The others are exploring different facets of their research and how they can continue to work with me as we move into the school year. The most important thing is that they have improved their soft skills in a friendly and supportive environment while becoming well-versed in discussing their work. These can be difficult to acquire through normal channels.

All of the students have grown. Some have learned how to design a poster—specifically, how much information they should put on the poster—and then how to create a PowerPoint presentation to support the poster and share what they have been working on. Others have come out of their shell, realizing it’s OK to share with one another and help each other get through troublesome issues. The excitement is palpable. They are also going to help younger students while they visit a utility plant and nuclear power facility on campus. This touches on the innate desire of humans to help and nurture younger individuals; in so doing, they learn how to hone their communication and interpersonal skills. It’s another way to help students improve their soft skills as they explore technical topics and hone their existing knowledge, all while doing things that excite them.

What have you done to encourage others to do their best and become better at what they do? What can you do in your plant to help your employees at all levels be better at interaction and working together?