How to train and demonstrate your problem-solving skills ~

30 de julio de 2016

How to train and demonstrate your problem-solving skills


(Puedes leer esta entrada en español aquí)
One of the perks of working at a large university like UT Austin is that we get to hear interesting talks almost every week. Most of them are delivered by visiting or resident scientists, who share their latest research results, and promote stimulating discussions that very often continue until late hours in our local bar.

Some of my preferred talks, though, are the ones organized by the Career Design Center, because they offer free pizza!! because they talk about those very important things that we should have learnt during our undergrads, but somehow got forgotten, e.g.:

- How do you actually get a job?

- How do you negotiate a salary?

- How do you write CVs, resumes, grants…

- What else can you do with a PhD, apart from getting a postdoc?

A few weeks ago, Dr. Po-Tsan Ku, Career Development Specialist for Graduate Students and Postdocs, gave a great talk on the four most important professional skills that are expected from a college graduate. Po-Tsan’s talk was so good that we thought it would make a great post for, so here we are!


What are the four most important professional skills?

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, these 4 competencies are “essential”:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving abilities
  • Conflict management
  • Team work attitude and process management
  • Communication skills: Writing and speaking with clarity and ease

Job Outlook 2016 Spring Update, National Association of Colleges and Employers

Why do these professional skills matter?

Apart from their obvious importance in your daily life, there are several reasons to identify them and further improve them. For example:

1. These skills might get you the job

After all, behavioral interviewing is on the rise: These days you will need to prove these skills already in the interview phase, when you will be asked all kinds of personal questions about your behavior in different circumstances.

Nowadays, the amount of highly prepared young professionals is larger than ever, so employers don’t fear a lack of applicants with the required technical skills. What they fear the most is hiring someone whose personality doesn’t fit the group or company, leading to conflicts later on. That takes us to the next reason:

2. Having these skills will help you keep your job

A three-year study compiling results from hiring managers found that 50 percent of newly hired employees failed before finishing their second year due to poor interpersonal skills, such as accepting feedback, conflict resolution, and managing emotions; and only 11% failed because they lacked the necessary technical skills.

Lack of technical skill can be solved quickly, for example, by getting a co-worker to teach the new hire, but if the interpersonal skills of the new person are not very good, the mentoring will not work well, and might lead to company-wide conflicts. Hiring the wrong person is an expensive mistake for any company, so they will try to filter candidates without the right professional skills early during the interview.

How can we train and demonstrate these four professional skills?
Let’s start by the top valued skill: 

Critical thinking and Problem solving abilities

If you are engaged in a STEM career, it is very likely that you already have a good grasp on critical thinking and the problem solving process. After all, this process has a lot of parallels with the scientific method!

how to solve a problem

How to train your problem solving abilities

The best way to learn how to solve problems is practice! Skilled problem solvers learn to recognize patterns and use their experience from previous challenges to implement potential solutions. It works like a vaccine: you are more likely to solve a problem if you faced a similar trouble in the past and learnt to overcome it.

So, where to start? If you are doing a master project or a PhD, I can assure you that you will have plenty of opportunities to train this ability.

If you don’t have enough problems right now, create some!

How to solve really hard problems

If things get too complicated, don´t despair. Follow the steps of other great thinkers and your problem will fall like a ripe apple from a tree (blink blink).

A common “trick” is very simple: Go for a walk. Or a run!

Darwin walked on his “thinking path” a couple times a day, kicking pebbles and musing about his (r)evolutionary ideas. These walks helped him to digest all his memories, experiences and thoughts, and made it easier for him to “link the dots” after intense studying.

The famous mathematician Henri Poincaré did that too. 

Once, he was working on a very complicated problem (his Fuchsian functions) and reached an apparently impossible block. Frustrated, he left the house to go to a geological excursion and, when his mind relaxed a bit, a solution popped up in his mind! He had similar breakthroughs later on too, which led him to this conclusion:
"A creative solution for a hard problem requires alternate stages of conscious and unconscious work"
That is, first we need to study hard and learn as much as we can about the problem. Then we can go for a walk, relax a bit, and let our unconscious mind work in the background, enhancing our creativity. Finally, when new ideas come, we return to the desk and focus hard on the new ideas to, as Poincare said, “put our unconscious results on a firm footing.”

He described this process beautifully in his Foundations of Science - if you liked Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman, you should read Poincare too! Just look at this delightful sentence:
“I beg the reader's pardon; I am about to use some technical expressions, but they need not frighten him, for he is not obliged to understand them.”
I'd love to speak like that all the time! You can actually download the book for free here.

How does the eureka moment work?

We are all familiar with that eureka moment, the great idea that usually comes when we are going for a walk, taking a shower, or doing something that leads us to a state of “flow”.

Some researchers have suggested that these “flow” moments might be related to stages of transient hypofrontality, that is, when the prefrontal cortex in the brain slows down and, with it, the analytical and meta-conscious capacities. (Dietrich 2004, The Rise of Superman)

It makes sense: Self-conscience (doubts, insecurities...) can surely hamper creativity. If the brain region in charge of self-thoughts slows down, it gets easier to be creative. Time is also processed in the prefrontal cortex, so that would explain why I lost track of the hours while writing this... I'm in the flow!

It's being proposed that some exercise can promote those states of tran.. transient hipofr... those flow states! I'm not sure if it helps my “eureka moments”, but I try to go for a short run every morning. It sure helps me plan the day and start it with a feeling of achievement, a little motivational push… you should try it, too!
If I could run like this everyday, I'd be super-motivated all the time!

Always save your progress

Once you solve a problem, don’t forget to write down how you did it. That way you will be able to find the solution fast if you face a similar problem in the future.

Once, a reviewer told me to analyze my data in a different way and, after a lot of suffering, cursing, and online research, I managed to do it.

I thought it would be a onetime thing, so I didn´t care about writing down the steps anywhere. Bad choice: I had to do it again for the next paper! This time, I filled my R code with explanations, including the responses from reviewers, and saved the files in a dedicated “How to” folder. Now I’m ready if similar problems knock on my door in the future!

Keeping track of your problem solutions is important for another reason…

How to demonstrate your problem-solving abilities

Problem-solving is one of the most (if not the most) valued professional skill in the job market, so it should be right there in your CV, along with your degrees and work experience.

We cannot just write “extraordinary problem-solving skills”, though. You need to be more explicit and describe relevant experiences that show your skill. Try to include your specific actions and some measure of your results. For example, you could write:
- Internship at Monfrague National Park (Spain)

  • Designed a reward system based on Pokemon Go that reduced trash and increased recycling by 30% in public areas.
Writing specific experiences in your CV will help to trigger curiosity in your potential employers and might give you a chance to get an interview. Once there, you can use the examples in your CV to elaborate responses to those dreaded behavioral questions, e.g.:

  • From time to time we all deal with confusing or ambiguous situations. Tell me about a recent work experience when you had to solve a problem without having all the necessary background information readily at hand.
  • Tell me about a difficult decision you have made in the past year in your work life.
  • Describe an instance when you had to think on your feet to extricate yourself from a difficult situation.

Follow these steps when elaborating your response and be sure to practice a few times before any potential interview:

• Describe the Problem or Situation

• Explain the Action(s) You Took

• Quantify the Result(s)

• Finish describing the Lesson(s) Learned

It is a good idea to prepare a few different stories to tailor different potential questions. For example, if an interviewer asked me a question like:

“Can you describe a situation in which you had to solve a problem with limited time and /or resources?”

I would immediately think of this fun anecdote of my PhD.

And you? Can you think of an experience that proves your problem-solving abilities? Do you have some questions for Po-Tsan? Tell us in the comments or on our facebook page! And keep tuned for the next posts, we’ll talk about the other three professional skills.

Po-Tsan and Fernando

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