Emotional intelligence for STEM careers

emotional intelligence

It’s no secret that great technical skills are highly sought after in STEM graduates. But hiring managers often state that high emotional intelligence (EI) is an equally important quality for prospective employees. Read on to find out exactly what employers are looking for and how two universities have taken steps to ensure their grads develop these skills.

What is emotional intelligence?

The term ‘emotional intelligence’ is relatively new (it was created by two psychology researchers in the 1990s), but the concepts are fairly intuitive. EI is defined as the ability to recognise, understand and manage your emotions and the emotions of others.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman breaks down EI into five core components:

1. Self-awareness – the ability to recognise and understand your moods and emotions, and how they affect others

2. Self-regulation – the ability to control impulses and moods, and to think before acting

3. Intrinsic motivation – being driven to pursue goals for personal reasons, rather than for some kind of reward

4. Empathy – the ability to recognise and understand others’ motivations, which is essential for building and leading teams successfully

5. Social skills – the ability to manage relationships and build networks

It’s clear that EI skills are useful for all instances of interaction – whether at home, socially or in work environments.

There have been numerous studies that show that workers with high EI go further in their careers. On an individual level, they are better at motivating themselves. Team members with high EI are highly effective at building up trust and fostering collaboration. The ability to empathise with others is also essential in preventing and resolving conflicts. All these skills add up to high individual performance in workplace tasks, a boost to the whole workplace performance and a happier workplace environment all-round.


emotional intelligence

EI a must in medicine

Medicine has one of the highest ATAR entry requirements of all tertiary disciplines, but it’s increasingly being recognised that doctors need high EI as well as the essential academic prowess. From showing compassion to patients, reading emotions to improve diagnoses and communicating effectively with staff, patients and family members, doctors need exemplary EI.

Bond University has become the first Australian university to implement EI requirements in the selection process for its medical program. The new Dean of Medicine, Professor Kristy Forrest, explains that the new EI testing has been introduced to reflect that emotional skills are critical in the medical workplace.  “You need to be able to work in a team, to change behaviour, and to display kindness, consideration and empathy”, says Dr Forrest.

In the past, students were selected based on their ATAR and an interview process. This year, the highest-ranked students (according to their ATAR) will take the EI test before participating in interviews, from which the top 120 students will be offered a place into the four-year Bond medical program (Bachelor of Medical Studies followed by a Doctor of Medicine).

The EI test has been developed by an Australian organisation which specialises in developing psychometric assessments. “Our message is that students need to work on developing their emotional intelligence in the same way they work on their academic performance, emphasising the fact that both IQ and EI are important to be a successful doctor,” says Dr Forrest.

emotional intelligence

Equally essential for engineers

Engineers don’t just work on technical solutions behind the scenes – they need to understand how their solutions fit into the community and environment, work in interdisciplinary teams and communicate with a range of stakeholders. These situations all require high EI. To become a professional engineer, engineering graduates are required to seek accreditation with a professional body such as Engineers Australia. To achieve this, applicants have to demonstrate core competencies, which not only include technical expertise, but professional and personal attributes, which are strongly linked to EI.

Compulsory “soft skills” training is being incorporated into the curriculum to foster high EI in engineering students at Monash University. Managers of Student and Academic Services, Andrea Waller and Lindsay Guy, explain that training programs to enhance EI are available throughout programs offered to both Bachelor and Masters of Engineering students at Monash.

“Emotional intelligence is critical to engineers”, says Waller. “Graduates will need to have the emotional intelligence to be able to translate the needs of the community back to their engineering team.”

EI development is incorporated into the engineering curriculum, which is designed to align with Engineers Australia core competencies. “Students work in multidisciplinary teams, which mimics what they do in the real world, and they are learning to communicate both technical and non-technical aspects of the project to different people,” Waller says.

Monash also offers extra online courses for all students called Leap into Leadership. These programs have been designed with the input of feedback of industry advisory boards. “The feedback we get is that, yes our students are great with technical skills, but sometimes they need help with resilience, leadership and  emotional intelligence”, says Waller.

All students enrolled in a Bachelor or Masters are encouraged to undertake the leadership modules, which focus on employability and leadership. Waller and Guy point out that the module on Personal Branding is strongly linked to EI. “It’s all about who you are and how you fit into the workplace.”

Additionally, Monash students can apply for the  Monash Engineering Leadership Program, a three-year program that prepares students to be leaders in their chosen engineering fields. This competitive program is run by industry leaders and aims to give students a professional edge, including entrepreneurial experience and EI training.

“It’s so important for students to not only have academic skills, but also to understand themselves and others”, says Guy.

Tools to improve your EI

Keen to improve your own emotional intelligence? Check out the leadership programs offered by your university – most will include practical EI tips. Engage in activities that require teamwork, whether it’s a problem-solving competition or a sport. There are also heaps of online resources to help with developing EI for the workplace, such as MindTools.

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Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Author: Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Larissa is the editorial assistant for Careers with STEM and a Chemistry PhD student. Larissa’s goal is to promote public engagement with STEM through inspiring stories.


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