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What Is Emotional Intelligence And Why It’s Important For Job Seeking PhDs To Develop

what is emotional intelligence | Cheeky Scientist | improving emotional intelligence
Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

To say that my PhD was an emotional roller-coaster ride is putting it lightly.

I never knew what surprises were in store for me on any given day.

Failed experiment one minute.

Rejected manuscript the next.

I constantly battled the expectations of my supervisor with the need to look after my own well-being.

There were times I felt like a cyborg.

I didn’t need sleep or regular meals.

Just stick me in front of a microscope with a cup of coffee and I would be set for days.

Other times, I felt like a puppy.

During these times, I felt like I was suffocating under the pressure.

I felt like I wanted to hide under my lab bench and whimper.

Over time, these feelings of anxiety become a part of my normal life.

Feelings of satisfaction were fleeting.

And yet, I survived it all.

Not only that, but I became more in tune with my own emotions because of it.

I learned many strategies for overcoming academic emotional stress.

One month to complete major revisions on a manuscript.


One week to prepare my thesis defense.


I was able to complete my PhD without (completely) melting down.

How was I able to do this?

Academic emotional intelligence.

Without realizing it at the time, I was learning how to manage complex emotional responses from not only myself, but from my labmates, advisor, thesis committee, and many others.

Now, if I could only translate this academic emotional intelligence to industry.

If I could do this, I knew I would be able to get a top-level job.

I knew that hiring managers and recruiters valued not only logical intelligence, but also emotional intelligence.

In many cases, these gatekeepers valued emotional intelligence the most.

Why Your Academic Emotional Intelligence Is Valuable

According to the Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum, emotional intelligence will enter into the Top 10 most needed skills in industry by 2020.

With the advent of more and more technology-driven processes, less emphasis is placed on technical ability, with success being attributed to those with the perfect blend of self and social awareness.

They are more likely to stay calm under pressure, resolve conflict effectively, and lead by example, to name a few.

People with average intellect tend to outperform those with the highest intelligence quotient (IQ) if they have emotional intelligence (EQ).

IQ(low) + EQ > IQ(high)

Get the picture?

Additionally, a recent CareerBuilder survey showed that 70% of hiring managers value emotional intelligence over IQ.

This isn’t a new trend, in fact it started decades ago in the 1990s, when L’Oreal began to use emotional intelligence as a requirement when hiring employees.

Candidates with higher emotional intelligence who were hired sold over $90,000 more per year than their colleagues.

How much more?

…a net revenue increase of over $2.5 million.

A high IQ, or an impressive education, quickly become irrelevant in the face of millions of dollars.

So where do PhDs fit into this puzzle?

With high IQs, impressive education accolades, and insatiable ambitions to do meaningful work, PhD students and postdocs are forced to deal with high-stakes emotions regularly.

During graduate and postdoctoral research, PhDs are constantly engaged in emotional intelligence training.

The problem is, most don’t know it.

Consider the issues PhDs have to face…

Taking criticism.

Having thoughtful discussions on complex issues.

Dealing with difficult advisors, PIs, and thesis committee members.

Showing empathy towards fellow graduate students and helping one another persevere.

Yet, through it all, most PhDs manage to stay emotionally balanced through these extreme situations.

As a result, these PhDs develop what is called academic emotional intelligence.

developing emotional intelligence | Cheeky Scientist | why emotional intelligence is important

5 Academic Emotional Intelligence Skills PhDs Have

Emotional intelligence is not the absence of emotions.

Emotionally intelligent people get angry, sad, and even have outbursts.

The key is that emotionally intelligent people know how to express the right emotions at the right times.

You might think this is some kind of talent you have to be born with.


Emotional intelligence is a skill that can be developed over time.

During your PhD, you did just that.

You gained self-management and relationship management skills that allowed you to overcome your tyrannical advisor, the endless number of experimental failures, and the pressure to complete your PhD, get your papers published, and/or get your next grant funded.

The academic emotional intelligence you developed is highly valuable in industry.

Remember, recruiters and hiring managers value emotional intelligence over logical intelligence.

Here are 5 academic emotional intelligence skills that will help you get hired in industry…

1. The ability to embrace challenge.

If getting your PhD was easy, why does less than 2% of the population have a PhD?

The challenge of getting a PhD is the easiest emotional intelligence skill you can leverage.

You entered into graduate school welcoming the challenge that laid ahead.

You wanted to find solutions to the most complicated scientific phenomena.

You created hypotheses in order to disprove them and constantly challenged the validity of your results with further experimentation.

Everything about this process was about overcoming challenge from multiple directions and multiple sources at the same time.

This parallels the way in which you will need to handle challenges in industry and, as a result, is a pivotal transferable skill.

PhDs are more likely to stay calm under pressure and accept challenging projects and challenging opinions from team members and management.

In R&D, there is a cultural shift towards an open innovation R&D model, where companies are looking to innovate faster with smaller infrastructure.

This is a huge challenge that PhDs will be able recognize, adapt to, and thrive under, all while keeping up with highly competitive industry environments.

2. The ability to recognize personal strengths and weaknesses.

When PhDs are not strong in a particular skill, they readily seek advice and initiate collaborations with experts in the field to ensure projects are completed efficiently.

You attend courses, shadow senior colleagues, and ask questions.

You recognize that, by asking for help, you can improve your own knowledge base.

You recognize your weaknesses and work hard to turn your weaknesses into strengths.

This is called professional awareness.

No one is omnipotent and your PhD didn’t come with robot superpowers (even if you felt like a cyborg at times).

Recognizing your strengths and weaknesses also allows you to work well in teams that capitalize on the unique strengths of its members.

During any industry job interview, you can count on being asked one question…

“What is your greatest weakness?”

Hiring managers will want to assess that you can authentically identify shortcomings but also identify ways to improve on these shortcomings.

Don’t say… “I am a perfectionist” or “I have no weaknesses.”

It makes you sound like you have no insight into yourself at all.

And it’s untrue — everyone has weaknesses.

Be honest with your self-assessment and show that you are a PhD who is keenly aware of all your current abilities, and aware of abilities you don’t have (yet).

3. The ability to let go of mistakes.

Experiments fail 90% of the time.

Maybe 99% of the time.

(This is data from my own personal meta-analysis.)

If, as a PhD, you wallowed in self-pity every time a mistake was made or an experiment went awry, you would never have graduated.

You would never have made it past day one of your postdoc either.

Instead, you learned from your mistakes.

You analysed the experiment to see if there is something to be learned and then moved on.

PhDs fail forward.

PhDs transitioning into research scientist positions will know that, in industry, you need to recognize when a project is no longer productive.

Decisions are made according to the corporate strategy, and projects will be scrapped if they do not fall in line.

You cannot dwell on what could have been. 

You have to be able to compartmentalize and move on quickly.

You have to learn from your mistakes and then let it go, applying newfound knowledge to the next project.

Fortunately, you have already dealt with these hard truths for years and, as a result, know how to move forward despite them.

4. The ability to deal with constructive criticism.

In research, everyone questions your data.

You even question your own data.

You receive negative criticism from your supervisors, grant reviewers, academic journals, and even the random professor in the crowd at a public lecture.

You learn to respond to this criticism without being defensive, but by being grateful for the feedback that may in turn strengthen your conclusions.

You learn to openly debate complex scientific topics.

At the end of the day, you want to improve scientific knowledge and this is only done by thoughtful discussion and feedback from the scientific community.

You don’t have the luxury of being defensive or argumentative during your PhD.

This is a skill — a skill desperately needed in industry.

In industry, you will constantly receive feedback from the management team.

If you are in medical writing, for example, being thick-skinned is a must.

You will have to hand over a piece of work on which you have labored, only to have it covered in red ink by a senior writer.

No matter what position you’re hired into, you will go from respected scientist to trainee and will have to learn how to follow numerous standard operating procedures.

You need to take all feedback on board and use it to develop yourself professionally.

Taking criticism with maturity and without over-personalizing it (skills you already have), makes you teachable and an easy addition to any industry team.

5. The ability to resolve conflict effectively.

Academia is often rife with conflict.

It can arise from your academic advisor, your colleagues, or your collaborators.

You have to find a way to work cohesively or risk prolonging (and simultaneously destroying) your academic career.

Conflicts come in many forms: ethical conflicts, conflicts over shared workspace, perceived workload, and more.

Dealing with negative people is often inherent to PhD programs and postdoctoral fellowships.

You had no choice but to find a peaceful resolution and not let these toxic people prevent you from moving forward.

In industry, it’s the same…

Conflicts will inevitably arise, both within teams and amongst management.

In business, just like in academia, there is high stress, high pressure, and high stakes.

As a project manager, for example, you must possess strong communication skills with the ability to motivate people in order to ensure all aims of the project are met on time and within budget.

If a conflict arises within the team you manage, you must be empathetic to all points of view and resolve the situation before it jeopardizes the delivery of the project.

Above all, you need to express the right emotions at the right times in order to resolve conflict, while keeping the big picture in mind.

Recognizing the emotional intelligence you developed during academia will help you get ahead in your job search. To recruiters and hiring managers, emotional intelligence is seen as more valuable than logical intelligence. Emotional intelligence gives you the ability to express yourself appropriately in high-pressure situations and gives you the know-how you need to effectively resolve conflict. Don’t underestimate these and other emotional intelligence skills that you have gained through your long, arduous journey through academia. These will be the key to your success in your job search and beyond.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Julian Holst

    Cathy, this is a super-refreshing article and is really helping me re-frame some of my thinking about the process of getting the PhD and learning these transferable skills. Of course, all of us “get” that earning a PhD is difficult and that 98% of the population never does it. But I haven’t seen that with such clarity until now. Thanks so much.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re most welcome Julian! Thank you for the lovely comments – I am happy that it has provided a fresh perspective on things.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    It’s good to know that managers are recognizing the importance of EQ now. It’s always been important since time immemorial, but the effort that it takes to make peace and find positive ways to move forward have not always been recognized. I think it’s to our credit as a society that we’re talking about it more and giving credit to those who put that effort forth. And I think it’s great that you’re pointing out the ways we can measure ourselves and find the words to articulate the kinds of situations we’ve been through that demonstrate our muster. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Sissy! Yes – I completely agree with you that it is about time that we speak more openly about the importance of EQ and successfully running a business.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    As someone who’s had to dig in deeply and really trust my own Emotional Intelligence to survive the first position I got after receiving my PhD, I can tell you that it’s absolutely imperative to learn to appreciate yourself and your abilities to manage chaotic work relationships and environments outside the academic world. Cathy is right on in identifying the many ways we’re tested in academia above and beyond the purely scientific, intellectual capacities, and I can tell you for sure that learning to navigate in the worlds of academia and networking will really come in handy. Great article, Cathy!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Carlie!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I think I can deal with all the changes okay once I find a position in industry, but the process of finding one is still a little daunting. But you’re right — better to go into the new job knowing that we’ve already proven we can go with the flow and thrive no matter what happens on the job. This is pretty encouraging.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Surviving a job search is a whole new level of EQ, Marvin, I agree with you on that. It brings uncertainly and self-doubt and requires perseverance all its own. What stage of your transition are you at now?

      • Marvin D’Esprit

        I’ve finished all my coursework except one make-up class, done a lot of the research for my dissertation but haven’t written it yet. I’m hoping to get out of there by June, but then I realized that everyone else is going to be competing for jobs at that time.

        • Cathy Sorbara

          Given your engagement with the CSA, I would say you are miles ahead of most in planning for your transition so I would not worry about the time of year. Remember, it is your network that will make a big difference for your job search. Keep us updated!

          • Marvin D’Esprit

            Wow! Thank you so much, Cathy! 🙂

  • Alice

    I agree with this article. I believe earning my PhD brought major life lessons and helped to develop my emotional intelligence. Where I am challenged is how does one indicate a high level of emotional intelligence on a CV or resume? In a sea of resumes for any given job opening, how can I show a hiring manager or dean that I possess these unique skills?

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great question Alice. I think the key is to describe these transferable skills in your resume (or at an interview) in combination with results that are business-oriented. For example, if you want to describe that you embrace challenge, you can say that you developed a protocol, with limited budget and time-restraints that successfully led to receipt of a grant worth $XX. Your EQ allowed you to successfully generate revenue with is exactly what hiring managers want to hear and shows you have the business acumen for industry.

  • Sonja Luther

    I think you’re absolutely right to point out the similarities between work and academia, Cathy. Even though you can get paid a lot more in industry, the challenges overlap quite a bit – the same drama and personality issues in academia rear their ugly heads in industry.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly Sonja – although I would argue that in industry, you have the support system to help quench the drama 😉

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    You’ve nailed it once again, Cathy! True, you’ve got to be aware that your industry project might be scrapped unexpectedly and they really don’t have to tell you why or justify it by saying funding got cut, or something like that. You have to be okay with certain disappointments and understand that the businesses are there to produce something that will be effective, and if your project isn’t working out, they’re not going to waste time discussing it forever. But … good thing you’ve already had the rug pulled out from under you as a PhD candidate, so you know how to roll with the punches. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly Matthew! Thanks for your feedback, as always! Much appreciated 🙂

  • Kathy Azalea

    Yes, a lot is getting thrown at us right now, and I’m really feeling it. I know I can do all this, but sometimes I just wish I had the time off. The good thing is that I’ll have better hours in industry.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes Kathy – it gets better in industry and you will be stronger for it. You will have better hours, be better compensated and have a better support system.

  • Harvey Delano

    I like that formula – high EQ + low IQ = high IQ. I had to laugh when I saw it. It just reminded me of so many silly, ridiculous things people argue about that make the work and progress go so slowly. Very funny, but subjectively accurate!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly Harvey!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I tend to get attached to my work, so it does bother me that my job could close down some of my pet projects at any time. On the other hand, I know there are a lot of moving points that I won’t be apprised of, such as what the competition is doing and who is funding what project, so things like that can happen and I may never hear an explanation. The hard thing for me would be to avoid blaming myself, and that’s where EQ comes in.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hi Madeline – what I find the most interesting about industry is learning about the business end of things – why certain projects are funded and what the mission of the company is. I think you will learn a lot about this when you transition and then you will not bother you when projects are scrapped because you can see what the big picture is – and yes, it is rarely down the fault of one person 🙂

  • Dr Gautam Kaul

    Its been more than two decades since I did my PhD….and not that I don’t know what the current lot are facing as I have guided and am guiding a number PhD scholars….but I sincerely believe that it should be like this only….it should be a grind so that when they come out of it they shine like a new penny….ready and armed with knowledge (which only they possess) for the cruel world….I would have appreciated if the author of the article had mentioned more about it so as to bring positive vibes while reading the same rather than with negative connotations….