By reading the very intersting question Priority of application materials for admission decision about which material is most important to be admitted as PhD candidate, or PostDoc or researcher, in a university, I started wondering on how and how much soft skills count, for the same objective.

As you know, besides academic degrees, grades, publications, reference letters, technical skills, project proposals, and etc., there are also soft skills that are considered by talent scouts to choose who engage.

For soft skills, I mean competence like:

  • public speaking
  • active listening
  • ability to manage relationships
  • ability to show interest

In scientific admission procedures, e.g. for PhD or PostDoc admission, how much do soft skills count?


I don't really know for PhD, but for Postdocs, from what I've seen and heard, these skills count a lot, especially when the recruitment process is well structured, as I experienced it in the UK and in Germany. Basically, the recruitment process consists of three steps:

  • Sending the CV, application, reference letters, etc. At this point, soft-skill do not really count, although knowing how to write a good cover letter can help.

  • Seminar/Public talk: the applicant is invited to give a presentation of his research work to a public audience (usually including the committee, and the staff from the department).

  • Interview: the recruitment committee interviews the applicant.

In the steps 2 and 3, the soft-skills are very important. Basically, all applicants reaching step 2 have good credentials, so it's somehow already established that they can write papers and solve research problems, so the quality of the talk and the attitude during the interview are crucial.

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  • Note that this is my view as an applicant, maybe someone used to be in a recruitment committee can give a different insight. But personally, I know that my soft skills have been very important in the final decisions. – user102 Apr 2 '12 at 15:17
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    I agree about everything except cover letters. I have served on admissions and hiring committees almost continuously since I entered academia. I have never read a cover letter. Ever. – JeffE Apr 2 '12 at 20:31
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    @JeffE: This may be a field-dependent issue. For postdocs that are hired by a single faculty member, I do want to read the cover letter—because I want to see that the author has taken the time to research my group and the position. For a department-wide position, it's not nearly so critical. – aeismail Apr 3 '12 at 8:50

For a graduate student, soft skills matter only in as much as they pertain to good writing and to having good interview skills (if interviews are conducted).

If you write a poor statement of purpose with an otherwise solid application, it can severely hurt your chances of admission. Similarly, in a department that does interviews, a good interview can significantly improve your chances—raising you from "on the bubble" to "admit." Of course, the converse could be true—if you come off as arrogant or incompetent in your interview, that can completely kill your chances at admission.

However, those are skills that can be worked on via practice, and most universities offer workshops and training on how to improve writing and handle job interviews. Students should take advantage of those opportunities when they're available.

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