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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 February 2006, 13:43 GMT
From nerd to networker
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Graduates have the qualifications but lack the social skills to get ahead in business, says a new report. The Magazine offers some tips on how to go from nerd to networker.

Being a boffin is no longer going to get graduates the well-paid jobs they want - the stakes have been raised.

As well as academic success, employers want people who are able to communicate properly, work as part of a team, are culturally aware and can lead others, says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) - skills gained outside the lecture theatre.

"Traditionally the boffin or nerd was hired for their brains but put in a backroom job and didn't have to communicate much.

We're not saying they can't string a sentence together, it's about communicating effectively
Carl Gilleard
"But those jobs are now few and far between. Employees have to communicate all the time with colleagues and clients so companies want people who can do that effectively. They have higher expectations now."

So, for those who spend more time with computers than with fellow humans, here's the Magazine's quick guide to brushing up on the social skills required to get ahead in business.


Mumbling, avoiding eye contact, talking to their shoes - the boffin's biggest challenge can often be talking to another human being.

Big Brother contestant Eugene Sully
Does Big Brother's Eugene typify graduates?

They can decipher the most complicated equation but trying to work out the social etiquette required to converse with someone else leaves them baffled - and making small talk can be plain scary.

But the only way to improve communication skills is to get out of the house and actually talk to someone, says celebrity life coach Gladeana McMahon.

Following a formula called OPEN should set the socially inept well on their way. It stands for occupation, personal, environment and non-work activities. Use these four areas as the basis of a conversation and the chat should flow.

"It's all aimed at encouraging small talk," says Ms McMahon. "Some people find it hard to know where to start but stick to these four areas and you shouldn't be lost for words."


Some students are so focused on one thing - getting their degree - it can come as no surprise when they are no good at team activities after leaving university, says Ms McMahon. "They need to get involved in different social groups and mix. At first they will be awful but they will eventually learn the skills they need to be a good team player."

Those skills include being a good listener and being assertive, but in a way that is respectful to other people. Using "link" words is the key.

"A good team worker would say 'I see your point, however why don't we look at it from this perspective'. The all-important link word here is however. It gets your view across in a confident but respectful way," says Ms McMahon.


Talk of "taking a lead" in an office environment usually means picking up a computer cable for most geeks. But the ability to lead and inspire a team of people is essential in a lot of jobs.

The inept minister in The Thick of It
A good leader?
To improve this skill, seek out a role model, says Ms McMahon. "Look for someone who has good leadership skills in your own office and watch what they do and what they say.

"It's called modelling and involves taking their successful skills and making them your own. It's not about mimicking, it's about adapting good skills for yourself.

"It's using your initiative, a quality that is always admired in the world of work."


Often the day-to-day life of a boffin involves a lot of isolation. Largely based in their bedroom, visitors are few and far between, let alone someone from another country or a member of the opposite sex.

But in today's global community, graduates will have to work with people or deal with clients from many different backgrounds. Ignorance can result in an embarrassing faux pas.

Learning about other cultures does not automatically mean spending time and money on travel. People can learn about the difference when it comes to things like personal space and eye contact by using books and the internet (a chance to put those well-honed computer skills to good use).

Also, just ask. "Treat it as an exploration," says Ms McMahon. "Use your newly acquired chit-chat skills and ask questions. It's the best way to learn and you will get to know people."

This raises valid points, but I am a little tired of the stereotype of the socially inept boffin. I work in I.T, and while there are some who do fit this image to a tee, a lot of us are just normal, young professionals, who do a 9 to 5 job then go to the pub. Most of the people I work with have girlfriends/boyfriends and can hold a conversation. And as for leaderhip skills, our problem is that too many people want to lead, not too few!
Shane, London

Studying a science degree at Uni my classmates & I had to do an extra "arts" course to make sure we graduated as balanced individuals. I didn't mind doing this, but students on arts degrees didn't have to do an extra science course to make them balanced. The truth is that most of them couldn't add three numbers in their heads and (for example) didn't know the difference between what a galaxy is and what the universe is. To this day in business (I graduated 20 years ago and now work in global finance) I am astounded at how little basic science or technology skills the average non science graduate has.
Ade, Guildford, England

Be careful - I understand that in Eire asking about another persons occupation is extremely rude.
Ian Baldwin, Buntingford England

I fully agree with the above, as I would consider myself somewhat of an expert. Having graduated in 2000 with a top Engineering degree, looking back I would have called myself as a "boffin". After a year in employment I found that I did not have the relevant skills to communicate as I liked. Therefore I made the decision to leave my old company and take some time out travelling. Whilst traveling I started to work as a sales man in New Zealand and Australia (Door to Door sales man!). Now I feel, the skills and cultural awareness that I gained from this great experience has made me a much employable person back in the UK. I would recommend the following to anybody who felt like I did. If you cant afford the travel, I would highly recommend working in a sales role to anyone who would like to improve there communication skills, as quite often the training offered is ¿excellent¿ and very hands on, which you can not get in any book!
Colin, Eailing, west london, UK

So - be anything but what you are. The modern world in a nutshell.
paul, UK

The article fatuously underestimates the value of the boffin. Office suit team player types are ten-a-penny; full of empty headed phrases and meaningless banter that's endlessly regurgitated to grease the skids of inadequate team dynamics with an eye always open to obsequious office politics. Brain power on the other hand is worth its weight in gold and what's more, we all instinctively know this to be true. Next time your computer fails to boot ask yourself a simple question: Do I take it to the 'team' or the boffin for repair. Empty corporate suits and team players had best hope that the boffins don't form a union - no boffin input means nothing for the suit team to (mis)manage, They'll have to find some other venue in which to blow off gas, which would be a good thing. Remember: A team is a vehicle in which the weak hide their incompetence by using the strong. Trouble is that the technique has been used to the point where teams are comprised of nothing but weak links. May! Darwin's engine run them all over. It inevitably will.
Brian wilson, Nottingham. UK.<

It is easy to generalise that all graduates are "boffins" yet I think it would be hard to apply this label to most of those in possession of 2:1s in Arts degrees from highly rated Universities. However, many have difficulty being taken seriously as graduates because we're not considered to be the "creme de la creme". So having social and people management skills clearly means nothing, when an employer can bag a mumbling, socially inept boffin possessing a first from Oxbridge.
Louise, London

The answer to the problem is simple. If too many graduates are leaving university without the necessary skills for the work place then more University courses need to address this issue and therefore the value that employers place on that degree will increase. I¿m a recent Engineering graduate and a large proportion of my third and fourth years at University were focused around developing skills for the work place, either applying my technical knowledge, producing documentation, working in groups or teams or by spending some of my summer working for an Engineering company. The results is that even though I studied a non-related degree I am able to apply for just about any graduate position in Business and Finance simply because I have spent a lot more time developing these skills that most of my peer competitors.
Mark Smith, London

I agree with this article, I did my degree whilst at work subsequently I gained such skills needed in the work place at the same time as gaining a qualification. I did not want to go to uni and get £'s in debt I wanted to get out there and work.
Tom, Birmingham UK

What is this world of "boffins" and "geeks" that you talk about? Since when has it been such a terrible thing for people to be focused and good at something? There is always talk in the media of work shy students wasting tax payers money, but when intelligent students do enter the job market they are criticised and mocked.
Anon, Oxford

Once I graduated, I was dreadful in my first office job. I complained that I had to photocopy things when I had a degree and my expectations were too high. I agree with the article because I lacked many skills that - thankfully - I have acquired, but only through trial and error !
Tanya, London

I think this article has fallen into the trap of assuming all spods have no life outside of their gadget-laden bedrooms. I am a self-confessed geek and god knows the people I work with are nerds of the highest capacity (dinner conversation is often composed of discussions about ionisation techniques) but we all have as wide and varied social lives as the next man.
Bryan, Edinburgh

I worry that a lot of these "lifestyle trainers" of whatever form (diet, fashion, de-nerding) just don't like people to be different. What happened to English Eccentric? What's wrong with having some really intelligent people in the backroom who, although they may not have many social skills, can decode complicated ciphers and win a war (as an example)? Why should people be all the same and be able to use "small talk"? Some peoples minds are on higher and more frtuitful things.
Andrew Wilson, Dundee, UK

I think it's sad that these 'nerds' need to go through all this discomfort and anguish. What happened to the real boffins who may not be social climbers but are incredibly good at their job, precisely *because* they're so single-minded and less prone to chit-chat? It's such a shame. So many brilliant minds are overlooked due to being shy or not passing personality tests.
Sara, Bristol, UK

Whilst I agree whole heartedly with your comments. You can teach social skills but I bet you can't teach someone with the social skills to have a graduates brains....
Vivienne Brooks, Winchester, UK

The Magazine is missing a vital point here: "graduate" no longer equals "boffin". The fact that almost half of young people are getting degrees these days does not mean that we have all suddenly got brighter and more nerd-like, it simply means that there are lot more graduates who 10 years ago would never have been able to get a degree in the first place. Contrary to popular myth, social skills and intelligence are not independent attributes. If anyoone needs to brush up on their education here it's those in business: you can't get something (i.e. a dramatic increase in the educated work force) for nothing (i.e. a government target behind which there is no financial backing).
Matthew, Bristol

Ummmm.....well.....don't know....I think so.....sort of.
Andrew Massey, Hemel Hempstead

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