PhD Student: An Expert or a Skill Builder?

The PhD Student: Expert or Skill Builder?

When I started the PhD, this whole process was advertised as a chance to create new knowledge. I was going to become an expert on a tiny thing in the world of knowledge. And this may be true. During the PhD, despite imposter syndrome, I did become an expert on my topic. 

However, I think this is the wrong perspective to have. Not everyone who graduates with a PhD will end up in academia. Ending up in industry is a fantastic result (even if navigating that world sounds difficult and your program didn’t really prepare you for it). Especially now, during a pandemic, that the academic job market has dried up and universities are in crisis, the near future is looking a little grim. I recommend reading this post by the Thesis Whisperer once you have finished here. She relays the idea I’m trying to communicate here passionately and clearly. 

You should view your time as a PhD student as a time to build skills (both academic and non-academic). Be selfish and focus on yourself. Acquire skills and add them to your CV. You never know where you’ll end up after the PhD, so it is best to try and collect all the skills to maximise your chances of employment.

Study Design skills: Try and make sure that you are using different study designs (qualitative, quantitative, mixed designs) and engage in theoretical and empirical work. Conduct a systematic review rather than a narrative review. Or do both.

Analytical skills: Include different types of analyses. Don’t just stick to your favourite ANOVA all the time. 

Programming skills: Learn statistical programs, like SPSS, R, Python, Jamovi etc. (see this post for more on this). Also, if relevant to you, use different programs to deliver your experiments (e.g., Qualtrics, Matlab etc.). 

Communication skills: Become a tutor or get a guest lecture in a unit. Both will teach you valuable communication skills. Take workshops on writing for publication and other academic skills as well as writing for industry (e.g., how to write a memo).

Supervision skills: If you can, try to mentor students or supervise honours students’ projects. 

Management/Organisational skills: While teaching, I was lucky enough to become head tutor on some of the units and as a result I ended up training and hiring tutors, arranging class times, managing the online learning system (e.g., Blackboard or moodle). This gave me great skills in managing people and organising many spinning plates.

In short, treat the PhD as a time for you to level up. Not just as an expert on a specific area but with the skills you can then use in future employment.

Have I missed any skills? What else can you learn during a PhD?

– Alessa

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