Four traits of every successful PhD student
Are you thinking of doing a PhD? Or perhaps you’ve been accepted on a programme and are preparing to start your PhD journey?
If you’re already at this stage of thinking or starting a PhD, you probably have the intellectual acumen and academic skills needed for advanced study – but intelligence isn’t everything. In this article, we’ll discuss the additional soft skills and qualities needed for PhD success. Very often, these traits are likely to get you further than academic brilliance alone.
The ability to work independently
Unlike undergraduate or taught postgraduate programmes, where you are required to attend seminars, do group work, or work on scheduled assignments, a substantial part of PhD work (or in some cases, the entire project) is done independently. In some disciplines, you might work in a larger team with other students and researchers, but it is still up to the individual PhD candidate to do most of their own data collection, analysis, and writing.
You are no longer working like a student or as a paid employee; you don’t report to someone like a teacher or a boss. Instead, you’ll need the discipline to design your work routine and plan the various components of your thesis on your own. In most cases, you are accountable only to yourself and it is important to be confident and trust in your ability to manage the entirety of your PhD independently (albeit with some support from your department and supervisor).
Knowing when to ask for help
Although we have just discussed the virtues of being independent, it is equally important to know when to ask for and receive help. You may find yourself up against some difficulties or issues that you have never dealt with before or have no idea how to address. While it is good to take initiative to try to solve an issue, do not be too proud to get help when you need it.
Work with your supervisors and listen to their advice and suggestions – it is literally their job to help you. Draw from the collective support of your PhD colleagues, research peers, and friends. Even if they are not working on the same project as you or even from the same discipline, you’ll be surprised at how much can be gained from getting a different perspective and advice from others on the same journey as you. Finally, seek out professional help and assistance from the university’s support or welfare teams if you find that your mental health is suffering.
Your research will be only as good as your level of wellbeing. Taking the steps to look after your mental health and get both academic and pastoral support for your PhD is one of the best things you can do for yourself and the research.
Curiosity and an openness to learn new things
Every PhD project stems from and revolves around one or more research questions – you are doing this research to investigate an issue more deeply or to try to uncover answers or solutions to a problem or question. A good PhD researcher is someone who continually asks questions and is keen to discover and learn new things, be it novel ways of doing research or alternative theories and perspectives.
Maintain curiosity throughout your PhD – dare to push at the boundaries of your project and question existing literature, your data, and even your role as the researcher. Always reflect on what you are doing, how you can do it differently, or what other ways there are of approaching your research. Of course, you are not expected to cover every possible approach and eventuality during your PhD, but having this curiosity will sharpen your thinking, enrich your final thesis, and demonstrate your perceptiveness and insight as a researcher.
Creativity and versatility
Most PhD theses will follow some similar conventions in the way they are structured and written; your supervisor will be able to advise you on the best ways to proceed. However, the finer details of how the research is conducted and how you engage with your data requires an amount of creativity and versatility to be able to identify emerging patterns and to communicate those findings in original and interesting ways.
Bear in mind that the research journey is not always a predictable one. Sometimes things go wrong during the course of your research; you might get unexpected results or your methods may not work as you anticipate. Being creative and adaptable to these changing circumstances will go a long way in helping you to produce excellent research even when things don’t always go to plan.
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