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Optimising your career and personal development during the PhD

The few years you spend working on your PhD are an excellent opportunity for personal development and for cultivating additional skills beyond the PhD. In fact, you are probably already picking up new skills that you aren’t even aware of, but which will be extremely valuable for both your PhD and your future career.

In this article, we will discuss some ways to optimise your career and personal development alongside your PhD research, and how to seek out the best opportunities to meet your academic and career goals.

Skills within the PhD

Doctoral research is challenging work and will require that you acquire and apply diverse skills across the various stages of your PhD. Often, you may not even realise that you’re exercising these skills, but they are an integral part of doing successful, sound research.

Every PhD project calls for a degree of project management as you juggle the multiple components of a thesis – reading and writing, data collection, analysis, to name only a few. If you are working as part of a larger research team, you will also need to develop strong teamworking skills as you collaborate with your team, while also managing your own work independently.

As you read and work through a substantial amount of literature throughout your PhD, you are developing excellent analytical skills and the ability to work with complex concepts and theories. Whether you are aware of it or not, you will regularly be expected to learn new things very quickly and adapt your own research and work to incorporate new methods or ideas. Being a fast, flexible learner is a quality that is highly desirable not just in academic research but in many sectors.

Depending on the specific nature of your project, the everyday tasks of your research project will also demand a certain specialised skillset. For example, if you work in a lab, you could become very adept at handling intricate, technical processes; if you conduct person-centred research, your fieldwork could help you develop strong interpersonal communication skills.

Skills beyond the PhD

At some point during your PhD, you may want to participate in other academic events, such as large conferences, smaller symposia or workshops. While contributing to your academic portfolio, these kinds of events are also excellent for developing multiple other skills.

If you are presenting at a conference, you will develop and fine-tune your public speaking skills, while also learning how to prepare and/or write shorter, effective presentations. Conferences offer opportunities to network and talk to new people about your research, so you will also be encouraged to further develop interpersonal and communication skills.

You might even like to organise your own conference or event – for example, forums, workshops or public talks and outreach events. Getting involved in these kinds of activities will provide you with ample experience in project/event management, offer you a better understanding of the inner workings and administrative processes of your university specifically and of academia more generally.

Even if you are not interested in pursuing a career in project/event management or administration, having these additional skills will demonstrate your ability to be versatile and to manage diverse kinds of responsibilities – these are qualities that all future employers will appreciate and can make you stand out among other potential job candidates.

Finally, find out whether your department maintains any connections or collaborations with organisations outside the university – for example, businesses, corporate entities, charities or NGOs. There may be opportunities for volunteering, internships or industrial placements that you could participate in alongside your PhD. This kind of work would afford you the chance to work with a different group of people under new circumstances, thus helping you to develop new skills and to gain new work experience.

Seek out opportunities

If you’re looking to develop your skills portfolio and are looking for activities or events to participate in, start by looking at what your own university has to offer. Most departments and institutions will run conferences or events regularly throughout the academic year. When you are feeling more confident, venture further afield to join conferences and events hosted by other universities or organisations.

The postgraduate student and research community is an excellent place for making connections and meeting like-minded academics whom you might potentially collaborate with to create or run your own events. Look out for student-led study groups, forums or societies you can join within your university, which provide an excellent platform for attending or organising events.

Don’t be afraid to create your own opportunities. If there is a workshop or conference that you would like to see, get some friends together and organise one yourself! Initiating a project and seeing it through from conceptualisation to delivery will boost your portfolio and sharpen multiple skills. Departments and universities sometimes set aside funding especially for postgraduate researchers to run events, so it’s worth checking out what support is available to you.

If you want to set your sights higher, look for national and international organisations or associations related to your field. These groups usually organise regular or annual conferences where you will have the chance to meet/collaborate with other people in your field; or they may run smaller events, workshops and training for their members throughout the year. Getting involved with organisations like these will boost both your research profile and your broader career and personal portfolio, standing you in good stead for a career both within and outside of academia.

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As you progress through your PhD, it is helpful to regularly reflect upon the skills you are developing at each stage of your research or through the extracurricular activities that you are involved in. Take note of these skills in your research journal, or as you chart out future career plans. You will probably find that you have more skills and talents than you realise!

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