A crucial asset in academia and industry


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In the sometimes harsh environment of the PhD lab, emotional intelligence can help researchers to thrive

Training and education in the scientific community typically focus on technical and experimental skills. However, sustained success in research and beyond requires more than just technical expertise; it demands a diverse set of soft skills and personal attributes, such as the ability to navigate complex relationships, manage stress, and communicate effectively. This means that developing emotional intelligence can be a crucial asset for PhD researchers.

What is it and why it matters

Emotional intelligence is more than a buzzword; it serves as the cornerstone of effective leadership. It encompasses the ability to recognise, understand and manage one’s own emotions and those of others. Individuals with high emotional intelligence foster environments where empathy, communication and collaboration flourish, making them invaluable in today’s business landscape.

For PhDs, the importance of emotional intelligence in successful career navigation cannot be overstated. Within a lab setting, this might entail managing disagreements while also pre-emptively offering support to coworkers, perhaps through involve simple acts like turning off equipment at the end of the day or adjusting your experiment schedule to give them space to work. Beyond the confines of the laboratory, interpersonal dynamics play a crucial role in collaborations, leadership positions and securing project funding. According to Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in emotional intelligence research, nearly 90% of what distinguishes high performers from those with similar technical expertise is attributed to emotional intelligence.

Reflecting on my initial experience in the lab as a PhD candidate, despite having a group of highly skilled individuals, a culture of competition prevailed over open communication and collaboration. This trend can be avoided by creating space for the development of such soft skills, which nowadays seem pivotal. In an evolving job market shaped by automation and artificial intelligence (AI), where machines increasingly manage routine tasks, the need for employees to demonstrate social and emotional skills and qualities like initiative and leadership is expected to increase significantly.

The impact of emotional intelligence

Let’s consider scenarios where high emotional intelligence is evident among PhDs. In instances where constructive feedback is provided, individuals with high emotional intelligence are able to receive criticism with openness and use it as a catalyst for improvement. They manage responses with clarity, fostering a positive and productive working environment. Additionally, emotionally intelligent PhDs show resilience in the face of setbacks, maintaining motivation and problem-solving skills even when experiments do not go as planned.

Developing emotional intelligence can help navigate interpersonal conflicts, team challenges, and communication issues with supervisors. Instances of defensiveness, resistance to feedback, and a failure to understand others’ perspectives can impede personal and professional growth. Recognising these patterns is crucial for individuals seeking to enhance their overall effectiveness. For example, I frequently recall instances during lab meetings where colleagues delved into intricate details of a particular experiment without providing context. In my view, their inability to grasp others’ perspectives reflected a lack of emotional intelligence, resulting in a lacklustre experience for all.

Opportunities, tips and tricks

Cultivating emotional intelligence demands continual dedication from both individuals and institutions.

On an individual level, it is crucial to enhance your presentation and communication skills by actively seeking feedback. This can be achieved through one-on-one meetings with peers, senior scientific staff such as postdocs, associate professors and principal investigators, or by engaging in extracurricular activities. While these meetings can be relaxed, like a coffee catch-up, it’s crucial to prepare by setting clear objectives and asking specific questions. For example, you could seek perspectives on the direction of your research project, encouraging candid feedback. In the rare instance where others may not be willing to help, you can develop emotional intelligence independently by practicing self-awareness exercises to enhance empathy, communication, and social skills.

Additionally, expanding your network to include individuals outside the lab and in the industry provides valuable insights into different communication styles and fosters a broader understanding of effective communication strategies.

It’s crucial to promote and implement these strategies

Active involvement from institutions and supervisors is crucial for emotional intelligence growth. Institutions can introduce structured opportunities, such as workshops, seminars or training sessions, specifically designed to address the emotional challenges inherent in the academic journey. For instance, integrating emotional intelligence into mandatory research ethics training could involve organising workshops led by external facilitators that would guide small groups through practical exercises in conflict resolution, assertive communication and sharing constructive feedback. From a supervisor’s standpoint, it’s crucial to promote and implement these strategies, offering incentives for lab members to participate. This could involve allocating a portion of the grant budget to such initiatives, prioritising them during research group retreats, and devising methods to regularly reinforce previously acquired knowledge.

Integrating emotional intelligence development into extracurricular activities and academic training not only enhances individual wellbeing but also contributes to a more collaborative, supportive and effective research community. By recognising and prioritising the importance of emotional intelligence, PhDs can unlock their full potential.