As a consultant at the Writing Resources Center, I have the opportunity to work with intelligent colleagues from a variety of academic disciplines.
People are often surprised to find out that not everyone who works at the WRC is an English major. In addition to English, the WRC has economics majors like me, chemistry majors, public health majors, government majors, and more. Like the consultees we work with, WRC consultants are diverse in both their backgrounds and skill-sets; but one thing we all have in common is recognizing the importance of communication, both written and oral.
Good writing, and more generally good communication, goes beyond papers in English or the humanities. Writing and expressing yourself clearly is essential in a variety of fields, both inside and outside academia.
STEM students often find writing to be a frustrating experience and feel that it isn’t entirely relevant for their current and future work beyond simply checking off a gen-ed requirement. For some, getting through humanities-based classes is more of a struggle than the STEM courses with which they’re comfortable.
(Humanities students, on the other hand, sometimes cringe when faced with math-based courses. Both types of students should keep in mind that pairing oral and written communication with some numbers or statistics can lead to stronger, more evidence-based writing.)
When STEM students hit the job market, they’ll find that employers are looking for both hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the technical abilities that are unique to a particular occupation or industry, while soft skills are interpersonal or “people” skills which include writing and communication. In STEM careers, now more than ever before, candidates with soft skills are actively sought out by employers. Today, “U.S. employers are facing a major gap in employee preparedness in ‘soft’ skills, which account for approximately one-third of skills requested in all U.S. job postings. The soft skills gap impacts the short- and long-term employment prospects of graduates of highly technical STEM degree programs” (Donahue 2016).
Why are these soft skills so important? Effective communication is essential, for example, when interpreting numerical data or visual data representations. Imagine standing in front of a boardroom making a presentation to key players internal or external to your organization; what truly matters isn’t whether you understand the data, but your ability to help your audience understand. To do so, you’ll need to communicate complex information in a clear, concise, and efficient manner. This takes practice: you have to determine what information is relevant for your audience, and decide the best way to deliver it. You don’t want to under-inform, but you certainly don’t want to over-inform either.
Developing your communication skills takes time, and college is the perfect place to practice. Instead of considering gen-ed and other required classes to be irrelevant to your future, think of them as learning opportunities. Use these classes to fine-tune the oral and written communication skills that will serve you well regardless of your major or future career path. And if you get stuck on the way to confident and effective communication—don’t stress—the Writing Resources Center is here to help!
Source: Murphy Donohue (2016). “Tackling the ‘soft’ skills gap: How you can prepare STEM students for employment,” Expert Perspective, July 29.