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Author: Claire Jarvis

As young scientists, we are often taught the academic notion of letting “your science speak for itself” and believing technical skills and research are our most important assets in obtaining a meaningful job. Indeed, when STEM professionals are hired into their first jobs those qualifications and strong technical competencies are important factors.

However, once they start at their new company, entry-level hires are often surprised when technical skills don’t seem as important in the eyes of management. They may also see colleagues with less skill in the laboratory climbing the promotion ladder faster, and perceive this as unfair.

It’s a disappointing and unfortunate truth that the promotion process is often unmeritocratic, and that climbing the ladder as a bench scientist requires self-advocacy and political skills as much as expertise and skill. The best way to make sense of this perceived unfairness is to understand that most individuals hired have cleared the minimum technical requirements needed to perform their job . Your organization doesn’t need STEM superstars: they need people who can get the work done. In that light, once you’re inside the company, your technical skills stop being the most important determinant of your value as an employer. Your soft skills and ability to work with others play an increasingly important role in levels of management and leadership.

How to Self-Advocate

Political (or more appropriately, interpersonal) skills aren’t disdainful or underhanded techniques to get ahead in the workplace. They demonstrate that you understand company culture and can act in a future management or leadership capacity. If people in management can’t get along with you as a colleague, why would they promote you to work alongside them?

Self-advocacy means highlighting your contribution to successful projects and documenting your achievements to leaders instead of hoping that you will get noticed.. The political side of the process means doing this is a way that doesn’t annoy those around you or take too much credit at the expense of others.

Self-promotion and interpersonal skills take time to develop and should be accomplished in a subtle, tasteful manner: it can be helpful to find a mentor outside your current company who can guide you through the process with a degree of separation from your chain of command.
There are personal brand marketing gurus that can offer lots of insight on the topic of self advocating: Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss and Gary Vaynerchuk among others.

Although learning to proactively promote your accomplishments takes practice and requires trial and error, it is an indispensible tactic in moving on to positions of increasing responsibility. Even if you worry you don’t deserve to – it is a difficult trick to master, and one that becomes important as you grow into your new biotech career.