How to Gain Professional Skills: “Don’t put Descartes before the Horse”

As you grow as a professional, you find yourself more and more conscious about your image and the way others perceive you. Not as superficial as the suit you wear or the lines on your resume, but, in a world in which we only interact with one another for short amounts of time, the way you are able to convey pertinent information to others in an ethical and sound manner becomes who you are. I like to think of this as “professionalism,” or some sort of skill that one obtains through years of experience and study. In examples that are easiest to observe, we could talk about “public speaking skills,” “writing skills,” “networking skills,” or other things that will allow you to succeed.

I’ve always loved the “lax” attitude of professionalism in science. Scientists adhere to incredibly high standards of writing, justification, and courtesy, but, at the Midwest Ecology and Evolution Conference last spring, faculty and students filtered into the hallways in shorts, sandals, and t-shirts. I was surprised to present my research to such a casual atmosphere of communicating science among different people. These scientists were not, in any way, un-professional, but they knew that their audience and atmosphere were appropriate so that they could dress and behave in such a friendly, easygoing manner.  Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed presenting my research on the Tomato Genome to the awesome crowd.

People have commended me for my public speaking skills. I’ve given lengthy speeches without aides (such as index cards or visual diagrams) after a few minutes of memorization. I absolutely love giving speeches and presentations whether I’m sharing a story of a historical event or outlining steps in a scientific method. But I have never learned a useful thing about public speaking from any textbook, teacher, course, or any other activity that is specifically tailored towards the goal of “becoming a better public speaker.” Rather, my proficiency in delivering speeches is the result of a critical inquiry into rhetoric, behavior, attitude, and emotion that allows me to understand how to communicate well with others. Over time, I’ve learned that, when speaking to other people, we rely on several subtle cues, subliminally or consciously. These cues are almost essential for a meaningful dialogue between multiple people, but, when one is giving an oral presentation, he/she must avoid reliance on these cues, and focus on heavier, more intrinsic evidence and sources for his/her statements and behavior.  What I mean is that, when you give a public speech, you need to forget about the norms of a two-way conversation. One must speak with reason from him/herself and choose to present an image of him/herself solely from his/her own will. Don’t rely on cues, feedback, or any other device you might have trusted before. You need a strong reason behind every statement you make, and you need to be able to understand the true meaning of whatever it is you are going to say. One might be inclined to proclaim “cogito ergo sum” and proceed to meditate on the nature of knowledge (as Descartes liked to do) before giving a speech on any topic. And these insights into the intricacies of reason on the topic of speaking I have accumulated have been more valuable than any workshop, class, textbook, or any other standardized line on a resume could ever tell.  And perhaps what we deem as “professional” is often construed and structured a meaning that misses the mark.

As I’ve said before, these “skills” are often created by ourselves as the result of several different skills (ie., behaving ethically, developing thoughts logically, analyzing critically, etc.) that one can obtain through any number of fields (as we have been luxuriously gifted by our liberal arts education). But we often take these skills for granted as “end goals” in and of themselves. We look for answers and solutions before we have the questions and evidence. Though I have explained this issue in the context of public speaking skills, I believe it can apply to other types of “skills” that we take for granted. As for my writing abilities, I decided to write blog posts spanning a variety of topics out of deep, deliberate rumination on those topics with a necessity for an outlet. Though I think my writing is a manifestation of those abilities and experiences, it was not the result of any desire to actually approach the skill of “writing” directly. And, similarly, we must look at the method before we understand the product.

But what exactly is professionalism? Beats me. I write this blog post as I sit on my bed with no pants on while running genetic analysis software on human brain data. Being a scientist is fun. 

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