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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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Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.


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