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Survey Finds Soft Skills Sought in Hiring New Pathologists

It is no secret that new graduates may not be fully equipped with the necessary skills for their first job. Even among new pathologists, on-the-job training is necessary to fulfill both the technical and the "soft" skills needed in actual practice. According to a study published in the February issue of the Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, it is these nonpathology-based soft skills—such as flexibility, leadership, and relationship-building skills—that have emerged as important areas of emphasis for prospective employers.

"Regardless of practice setting, employers place a great deal of importance on interpersonal and communication skills and professionalism, two core residency training competencies that both applicants and residency training programs may prioritize less than those related to medical knowledge and patient care," write the authors led by Miriam Post, M.D., from the University of Colorado, Denver.

Members of the College of American Pathologists (CAP) Graduate Medical Education Committee conducted a survey of CAP fellows who had been in U.S. practice for five or more years and were responsible for hiring a new-in-practice pathologist (NIP; defined as in the workforce for three years or less). The survey addressed 18 skills and attributes employers consider when hiring. The skills and attributes were grouped into the categories of interpersonal style, work style, career motivation and job search, and technical proficiency and rated on a five-point scale.

The most critically important skills
and attributes, regardless of practice
setting, were:
• ƒƒethics/integrity (76 percent),
ƒƒ• ƒƒwork ethic (66 percent),
ƒƒ• ƒƒprofessionalism (61 percent),
ƒƒ• ƒƒdiagnostic skills (58 percent),
ƒƒ• ƒƒemotional stability (55 percent),
ƒƒ• ƒƒteam attitude (54 percent), and
ƒƒ• ƒƒcommunication skills (53 percent).

Responses from 630 pathologists show the majority (71 percent) has had some degree of difficulty hiring entry-level pathologists across practice settings (notfor profit hospital, academic center or hospital, and pathologist-owned laboratory). Reasons cited for this hiring difficulty included inadequate training during residency and applicants having unrealistic expectations regarding work load/hours. The other common reasons for disqualification include poor interpersonal skills, poor communication skills (including difficulty with the English language), poor technical proficiency, and poor references.

The most critically important skills and attributes, regardless of practice setting, were ethics/integrity (76 percent), work ethic (66 percent), and professionalism (61 percent), followed by diagnostic skills (58 percent), emotional stability (55 percent), team attitude (54 percent), and communication skills (53 percent).

While most respondents said they would hire a candidate that did not have an existing relationship with a laboratory staff member, getting in the door might prove difficult. Respondents note that up to 70 percent of jobs are not publicly posted and 83 percent identified "networking/word of mouth" as the most common recruiting method, highlighting the need for applicants to hone their networking skills, the authors say.

Respondents’ free-text advice to pathology trainees were thematically categorized into three key themes:

  • Capitalize on opportunities during training to enhance leadership skills.
  • Develop interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Be flexible and know your preferred job characteristics.

Trainees should heed the advice, as the need to hire is expected to continue, with 85 percent of respondents anticipating hiring at least one NIP pathologist in the next 5 years. Hiring in academic settings is expected to be even more robust, with 92 percent reporting anticipated hiring within the next five years and 21 percent of those practicing in an academic setting expecting to hire four or more NIP pathologists over that time frame.

Takeaway: While the fact that NIP pathologists may lack some necessary skills for effective practice on day one is not surprising, trainees should be aware of the growing importance being placed on soft skills that may not be the primary focus of residency and fellowship training.

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