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Don’t Underestimate Soft Skills—Hard Skills Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Don’t Underestimate Soft Skills—Hard Skills Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Aylin Imeri
Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf

Day and night many students, if not all students are studying, studying, and studying to be prepared for a written exam, the thesis, or an oral agreement. As a supervisor, it’s exciting to observe students’ intellectual curiosity. They focus to absorb as much knowledge as possible to be able to apply one day for a new job, maybe their dream job.

However, it is no secret when I tell you that several students, when they are near to completion of their degree, will ask themselves questions such as: What’s next? Where will I fit in? Where to go?

Usually, during the graduate program, students might develop a feeling for topics they are interested in. For example, maybe you found out that you’re excited to program with Python and that you loved to join machine learning classes. Maybe, you also already wrote a Python code to automatically extract tweets. Or you found out that you are interested in librarians’ tasks and joined several classes considering indexing and classification. During a graduate program, all of us will get the chance to find out to some extent what makes fun and what one is comfortable with or should steer clear of.

—Don’t underestimate soft skills. Especially considering communication and endurance during a job interview.—

But why does it happen that sometimes you might receive a rejection even if your technical skills are a match?

During the ASIS&T Annual Meeting 2022 in Pittsburgh I had an interesting discussion with Yvonne Appiah Dadson. She is a doctoral student and a research project assistant (Extreme Events, Social Equity and Technology Lab College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity) at the University at Albany (State University of New York). Her university was seeking candidates for cyber-security-related fields. 

I asked Yvonne if there is one takeaway message that she would recommend to junior professionals or graduate students and indeed with our readers of Information Matters considering the application process.

She told me that there are often applicants who have a complete CV with crucial technical skills. But it is not all about technical skills and a strong CV at the end of the day. Yvonne told me that usually technical skills are sufficient to get invited to an interview, but that then the soft skills (e.g., communication and argumentation) can determine the decision to get the job. She explained that even if sometimes applicants have the technical skills they are not able to communicate their ideas or have a missing strong statement in their argumentation. Yvonne highlighted it is important to communicate in an easy way so that even a layperson could understand your research, the solution considering the problem, or also your idea. 

In short, her takeaway message: Don’t underestimate soft skills. Especially considering communication and endurance during a job interview. 

Apart from my talk with Yvonne Appiah Dadson, I had also the chance to join the 2022 Information Summit, where JonLuc Christensen was one of the keynote speakers. His talk was about “Developing Future-Forward Skills for the Modern LIS Professional.” JonLuc is Records & Archives Group Lead, FOIA Liaison, and Information/Configuration Management Engineering for the NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a lecturer at San Jose State University.

Indeed, I took the opportunity to get in contact again with JonLuc to get to know his thoughts considering soft skills, especially after graduate school, as he addressed this topic also during his keynote.

According to JonLuc, “[s]oft-skills are those crucial aspects of a professional or academic environment that cannot be […] taught easily—and information professionals may not be the best to teach them.”

I asked him why he thinks that information professionals also may not be the best to teach soft skills. He explained it as follows: “Ultimately, I think we have a very wide ranging field and we (as info pros) have a lot of work to do on the ‘hard’ skills alone. While we may teach soft-skills in grad school, I do think fields like social work, sociology, psychology, inter-personal communication, and even history are better suited to teach those skills. Through those fields we are able to see different perspectives that get outside of the library and information science specialties. I think it is important to draw from those fields in our education—now, that is not to say that having info pro educators with backgrounds in those fields is not possible. However, I worry that they are taught as ‘side’ skills—rather than ‘core’ skills—because we as information professionals do not ‘specialize’ in them.”

Further, he stressed: “We have to look at interdisciplinary approaches and cooperation that can help us develop and teach these skills. Skills like the ability to build trust in a team through effective communication, which I believe can be taught through education on emotional intelligence/quotient (EQ).”

I couldn’t agree more with JonLuc. Considering my time as a graduate student, I remember many times when I worked with fellow students. Sometimes I didn’t know everyone as we were randomly assigned to each other. To have a healthy atmosphere you need to trust each other even if you don’t know them and even if the project didn’t go well. You also need to find a way to respectfully and empathetically talk about things that didn’t go well. If you didn’t trust them from the beginning or during the project it impacts the motivation of your fellow students and the atmosphere and everybody on the team suffers the consequences.

Finally, JonLuc mentioned that “[w]e have to also focus on a strong education in cultural competency to build empathy and facilitate perspective sharing. Through education and practice in emotional elasticity, we can learn to provide space for conflict management and resolution—as this bound to come up when dealing with competing interests across huge numbers of stakeholders, regardless of industry or setting. There are a great many other soft-skills that could think of discussing—but for me I think these in EQ, emotional elasticity, and cultural competency are what we are missing most.”

Especially conflict management and resolution are vital in situations where you take responsibility for several colleagues with different cultural backgrounds. All of them bring their values and views and it is important to respect and listen to everyone.

Both short conversations enable valuable insights considering needed soft skills during a job interview and after graduate school.

I would like to thank both Yvonne and JonLuc for their time and for sharing their experience with the Information Matters readers.

Cite this article in APA as: Imeri, A. (2023, February 15). Don’t underestimate soft skills—Hard skills are just the tip of the iceberg. Information Matters, Vol. 3, Issue 2. https://informationmatters.org/2023/02/dont-underestimate-soft-skills-hard-skills-are-just-the-tip-of-the-iceberg/

Aylin Imeri

Aylin Imeri is a PostDoc (research associate) and lecturer at the Information Science Dept. of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. Her current research projects include social media (especially considering health-related topics), activity tracking technologies (e.g., motivation, gamification, data privacy, and health information behavior), and information behavior within the health-related context. Since 2022 (November) Aylin has been a member of the ASIS&T Board as Director at Large. She is part of the Health Information and Library Journal Editorial Advisory Board, and an Associate Editor for the Data and Information Management Journal and Information Matters.