How Learning Social Skills, Not STEM, Will Improve Your Career


This is a guest post by Christos Makridis on economic research about the importance of interpersonal social skills in accelerating your career. Christos is a PhD candidate at Stanford University, a labor & organizational economist, and a policy specialist on the east coast. Follow Christos on Medium

Some leading business gurus and commentators argue that coding ought to be the most important skill as automation takes over. Vinod Khosla, even goes as far to claim that a liberal arts education is obsolete. This speculation makes intuitive sense, but is it actually grounded in data?

This speculation presupposes that the increasing complexity of tasks, such as programming and algorithms, doesn’t require additional interpersonal skills, such as coordination and team work.

You may think you need to go study STEM to get ahead, but the reality is that learning highly-transferable soft skills may be just as, if not more, lucrative and set you up better for the future. Here's the evidence to say that and how you can apply that to your life.

Interpersonal Communication: Increasing in Style

While there is significant support pointing towards the importance of cognitive skills, there is also widespread evidence that non-cognitive skills and interpersonal communication skills matter.

For example, recent survey evidence from the Pew Center suggests that “interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and good writing and communications skills are the most important skills for doing their jobs”. The Pew Center also found that both employment and wages are rising fastest in jobs that require higher levels of preparation, arguably because the signaling value of having only a college degree has declined as the number of people with a college degree has grown over time.

The increasing complexity of tasks poses an even greater burden on individuals to coordinate and communicate within and across organizations. Adaptive organizations, those that succeed as the nature of work becomes more complex, provide employees with flexibility to tailor their tasks to local information and create clear modes of communication. In this sense, the fact that cognitive skills are important for success in the marketplace does not diminish the role that social skills play. Technology has increased, not decreased, the value of having a broader set with social skills.

How Some Universities Use this Data

Vinod, and others, raise many valid points. For example, the conventional way that many universities operate—focusing more on who they exclude, rather than the value added they provide to those they accept—has major limitations. If the most impactful businesses thrive by solving real problems for their customers, why should universities be any different?

Arizona State University President Michael Crow proposed and successfully executed on an alternative strategy, coining the “New American University” knowledge enterprise model. Crow argues that large public universities can excel in providing quality education at scale by integrating technology and optimizing their resources to create an environment for modular and life-long learning in many subjects.

This new model built by Arizona State University is transforming the arena of higher education with a number of other universities following suit in recognition of its value.

What You Can Do About It

How can you use this research to your advantage?

First, don’t confine yourself to a single area. While it’s important to have a core competency, don't think too narrowly about your contributions. That might mean double majoring, but it might also mean interning at more companies and helping them solve problems.

For example, my prior research found that individuals who double major in both liberal arts and STEM degree programs earn over 9% more than their counterparts who double major vertically—that is, in a single degree program. Although these results do not mean that double majoring in different areas will guarantee success, it does suggest that becoming versatile in different areas is useful.

Second, use every relationship as an opportunity to build social skills. We have far more opportunities to practice becoming better communicators and team members than we realize. Literally every interaction we have is a chance to become better at these skills. If you currently approach every conversation haphazardly, be more intentional about your interactions and reflect on what you learn from them.

Third, look for ways to integrate technology into your routine to become more efficient. Perhaps your technological application is as simple as making more frequent and effective use of Google calendar. Whatever it is, don’t let technology control you, but rather leverage it to become more productive.

Fourth, understand the incentives that others face, rather than going into a situation blind. Especially among very busy people, knowing your audience helps you tailor information and value to maximize the probability that both of you come away winning. While the currency will vary across sector, and potentially even the company, your responsibility is to identify the currency people use to get things done and find a way to acquire and then leverage it to make a positive impact on others.

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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