Thinking outside of the box – What do we learn from our Ph.D training?

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Often as Ph.D students, we are expected to be trained to become a future professor: publish papers, get a postdoc, find an assistant professor job, and work our way up to tenure. However, life is usually not a straight line and many things can happen during our Ph.D studies. For example, maybe you will find academia is not where you want to go for your career, or your research results are so exciting that you want to start your own business. Or, maybe sometimes you find yourself losing interest in your current research and simply want to get it done and move on. Often people who want to go outside of the ivory tower and face the real world would find themselves a bit lost as they’ve been trained to do research in a specific area (which might be quite fundamental and narrow) for so long, how are they going to find a job outside of their specialty?

 I found one sociological review which perfectly describes the 5 emotional phases that a Ph.D student may go through: starting from uninformed optimism, to informed pessimism, and then the valley of despair, to the informed optimism, and then finally to success & fulfillment. What a roller-coaster ride! The flexibility and freedom of graduate studies gives us plenty of time to reflect on ourselves from time to time. Here I would like to share my opinion on the skills that we are developing, which can be applied to a broad context, and hopefully spark some interesting discussions later. 😊

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#1 Research & Information Management

Doing research is the central part of our Ph.D life, no matter which program you are in. This is what we have been trained to do and what we need to do to successfully complete a thesis. People may assume that this may be useful only in academia. However, a lot of people miss the point that we actually need research skills in our daily life: for example, how to find the best way to get to a certain destination, how to plan out our vacation, or even how to find the best deal during the coming Holiday season 😉. Research is about defining a problem that needs to be answered, identifying related information, gathering and analyzing it with the best method or tool, and then presenting your results effectively in order to solve the problem or make decisions. When it comes to a career outside of academia many positions require research skills such as designing a new product line, changing the business strategies, making policies or even getting funding for a nonprofit organization. The doctorate experience will provide you with brilliant transferable research skills.

#2 Adaptability & Flexibility

Another important skill we develop throughout our training is the adaptability. Often during Ph.D studies we need to focus on a specific project in great depth and within a certain time frame, going from knowing almost nothing to the level of an expert in that specific area, in order to tackle the problem and then move on to the next challenge. Some people may think it is over-specialization and would have no use in industry. On the contrary, my view is that these experiences show you are specialized enough to undertake these tasks. The adaptability and flexibility you develop are highly-sought transferable skills in industry careers such as a business planner, a project manager or even a policy maker. Nobody will do the work they did in school forever; it’s this meta-cognitive skill on learning how to learn and learn it quickly to solve practical problems that would help us tremendously, in both career and our personal lives in this constantly changing world.

#3 Self-Management

Another great skill we are developing is self-management. As a science Ph.D candidate, not only do we need to work around the lab, do TA work, attend conferences to share our progress and supervise undergraduates and junior graduates, but we also need to carefully budget our finances, do our own cooking and see significant others if you are in a relationship. All these put together can be a bit overwhelming and intimidating, especially when there’s no hard deadline or rubrics to follow like we had in undergrad. How to prioritize tasks and keep track of different projects can be tricky, and it is these management skills we develop that make Ph.D studies more manageable. It’s easy to overload ourselves with work creating an illusion of progress. However, it would quickly cause you to become exhausted and suffer burnout. My suggestion would be this: try losing the “scarcity mindset” and do the things that are really important and essential to you in your life. Say “no” to those opportunities that are just “ok”.

I believe the modern doctorate degree is an excellent way to learn a wide range of transferable skills that are highly appreciated in different careers outside academia, including (but not limited to) those discussed above. What do you guys think?

Posted in Jobs and Careers, Productivity, Professional Development, Skill Development, views
2 comments on “Thinking outside of the box – What do we learn from our Ph.D training?
  1. Shirley says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing such an insightful article. I’ve gone through that “emotional cycle” while working on a PhD and thought I was the only one. It’s such a relief to know that it’s normal!! Wish I knew this sooner

  2. Colette says:

    Well written and a great example of using the skills you have learnt along your graduate studies journey.

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