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Professional Development for PhD Students

Certain professional skills including communication, leadership, teamwork, and project management are valued by employers across a wide range of sectors. While many institutions offer professional development workshops specifically aimed at helping graduate students develop these skills, you can also learn them through the course of your degree. Here are some of the major skill groups and how to work on them.

Communication Skills

  • Present at conferences- Conferences are a great way to hone your presentation skills and practice answering questions on the spot. Poster presentations also help you practice your oral communication skills on a one-on-one level.
  • Join an outreach group- Most of the communications skills you develop in grad school are aimed at communicating with an academic audience, but working in scientific outreach gives you the opportunity to learn how to talk to a non-technical audience. Knowing how to explain complex concepts in a simple way is a valuable skill.
  • Present a seminar paper- If you are in a PhD program with coursework, you will likely have to present a paper in your seminars each semester. Unlike when you present at a conference, a seminar paper doesn’t usually have accompanying visuals so your writing must be very clear.
  • Take a writing course- Many universities offer writing courses specifically for graduate students which can benefit those whose program doesn’t have a strong writing component.
  • Write a research proposal or grant application- Not only will this be good practice for a future career in academia, it also teaches you to write in a very specific way. A research proposal or grant application is different from a paper. You have to include an overview of the topic and connect your research to broader problems in the discipline while keeping in mind that the reader is not always an expert in the topic.
  • Publish a paper- In some fields you are expected to have multiple publications by the end of your PhD while in others even one publication will help you stand out on the job market. In either case, the peer review and revision process will improve your writing immensely.
  • Teach- Don’t underestimate how much teaching will improve your oral and written communication skills. Engaging teachers are able to communicate information in new, creative ways. If there is no formal teaching component to your degree, ask if you can be a teaching assistant for your supervisor or another professor in the department.

Academic Skills

  • Write your own syllabus- It’s good practice to make your own syllabus for the courses or sections that you teach. Not only will it make your expectations clearer for your students, it will also help you on the job market. Sample syllabi are often required when applying for faculty positions.
  • Take a pedagogy class- Some departments have mandatory classes about teaching theory and strategies. If your institution doesn’t offer any courses or workshops, you can read about pedagogy or talk to professors in your department known for their stellar teaching.
  • Develop a teaching philosophy- As you learn more about teaching, start to develop your own teaching philosophy. Consider how you teach (strategies, techniques etc.) and why you teach this way. This will make you a more confident teacher and give you a leg up on job applications, which often require a teaching philosophy statement.
  • Grade- Grading is an often bemoaned part of teaching, but it is also a useful transferable skill. Developing a grading rubric helps you figure out what your standards for excellent work are and apply them.
  • Give feedback- Whether it’s written on a paper or discussed in person during office hours, learn to communicate feedback in a way that presents clear steps for improvement.
  • Find a mentor- Having a mentor of your own gives you an insight into the mentee perspective, not to mention a great role model for when you become a mentor yourself. Your mentor can also help you improve various academic skills such as teaching and academic writing.

Leadership and Management

  • Join a team- As much of academic work is done individually, make an effort to take part in a collaborative project that will give you experience with team dynamics. Better yet, incorporate group work and group projects into your teaching. Knowing how to manage group activities, establish expectations, resolve conflicts and assess performance are important managerial skills.
  • Departmental leadership- There are few opportunities to develop leadership skill in grad school, but one of the easiest ways is to join your department’s graduate student association. Another is to join a conference organizing committee.
  • Project management- The entire PhD process is an exercise in project management. You are learning how to develop a project, plan it out, and work through setbacks. If your research is collaborative there’s the added element of delegation and accountability.
  • Conflict resolution- No one really likes to deal with conflict, especially at work. Many graduate student professional development programs offer workshops on conflict resolution where you can learn diffusion techniques. If your university doesn’t offer workshops, you can learn about conflict resolution from your supervisor or mentor.
  • Become a mentor- Being a mentor helps you learn how to motivate and inspire someone, which are important leadership skills.

Professionalism 

  • Ethics- If you teach or do experiments involving people or animals, you will have to undergo some type of ethics training.
  • Promote inclusion and diversity- A good teacher/supervisor understands that their students’ experiences and perspectives might be different from their own. Educate yourself about the issues that underrepresented groups in academia face and learn how you can help mitigate them. Seek our resources to promote diversity in your teaching
  • Get a mentor- A mentor can help you achieve your professional and personal goals. As someone in a more senior position, they can share valuable insider knowledge and insights with you about the profession. Your mentor can also facilitate important networking opportunities.
  • Network- Many PhD students make the mistake of thinking that networking is only necessary in the business world, but connections can be incredibly beneficial in the academic world as well. Your network could be future colleagues, supervisors, or collaborators. Conferences, guest lectures, and informational interviews are easy ways for PhD students to start networking.
  • Build your personal brand- Social media accounts help you increase your online presence and get your name out there. As a PhD student, you should set up professional accounts on ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and LinkedIn. Twitter is also a very useful social media platform for academics.

Developing these skill will give you the tools to find meaningful work after graduation.

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