Exploring Your Skills

When it’s time to start thinking about a future career, one of the first questions that might come to mind is, “What am I good at?” This can often be a difficult question to address, and unfortunately, it may be easier to think of things we are not good at. Laura N. Schram, an academic program officer at the University of Michigan, along with humanities students learned five useful lessons for Ph.D. students interested in identifying their skill set, in an eight-week career exploration program. These five lessons are broad enough to be applied to almost any field, including STEM.

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Lesson 1: Examine any negative assumptions about skills

First we need to define what is meant by the term “skills.” The dictionary definition states that a skill is, “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience or practice.” Schram states that, if you are pursuing a Ph.D., you are gaining highly specialized training, experience and practice within your field. Last week, I completed my Individual Development Plan (IDP) for my yearly evaluation. Within the IDP, there is an entire section on “assessing your skills,” where you must rank skills from 1 (needs improvement) – 5 (highly proficient). After you rank yourself, you give the same list to your PI to complete. The list includes laboratory/bench skills, general research skills, professional skills, leadership and management skills, and interpersonal skills. These are 5 broad categories, ranging from specific science knowledge to skills that are important for all fields, such as punctuality, conflict resolution and communicating clearly in conversation. In order to be successful as Ph.D. students, we have to communicate clearly, manage projects and time, be receptive to feedback, have independence, and solve problems. Initially, I had very negative assumptions about my skills; it was easy to go through the list and give myself low scores. Talking about these skills with my PI opened my eyes to how critical I was—he gave me much higher scores than I had given myself! What I learned from this experience is, it is important to not sell yourself short. Furthermore, it is important to remember that, in addition to the science, we are developing important soft skills, which are crucial for finding a future career.

Lesson 2: Believe you have transferable skills.

In terms of transferable skills, Schram refers to skills that have been acquired in one work setting that can be productively applied in another. Think about the skills you have, and areas you might want to improve on before engaging in a new professional experience. As mentioned in “Lesson 1,” we are all gaining abilities, during our Ph.D. training, that will be relevant in other contexts. Whether it is grant writing, running a lab, teaching a course or leading a committee, the skills used and developed in these activities can be brought into a new context. This was a highly discussed topic during SciPhD workshop as well (read about it here). We are gaining transferable skills every day, however, it can be hard to look outside of the box. How can running western blots be a transferable skill? Well, running experiments take time and project management, as well as punctuality. If you have undergraduates, you are also managing a team. When a problem comes up, you will use creativity, problem solving, and it is possible you will have to respond to a failure. Already, this is a large variety of transferable skills that you may not have thought of before. If you are interested in reading more about this, there is a list of Ph.D. transferable skills created by the University Career Center at University of Michigan, which can be found here.

Lesson 3: Don’t underestimate how quickly you can acquire skills.

 Sometimes it can feel like learning something new takes an incredibly long time, especially in regards to research. However, in terms of more general skills, the process might be quicker than expected. Schram states, “taking on a part-time job opportunity can expand your existing skills in more ways than you might expect.” She believes that by working in a new setting, even if it is for a relatively short time period, one can expand his or her range of transferable skills, even more than anticipated. While it might be difficult, or impossible, to get a part-time job opportunity while pursuing a Ph.D., it might be possible to do a summer internship. This will allow you to gain more transferable skills, such as: forging effective relationships through improved communication (“managing up”), cooperating and collaborating on team projects, networking and forming new collaborative relationships inside and outside the organization, managing projects from beginning to end, and implementing plans or solutions. At the same time, internships have been thought of as being an important entry point for getting a job in industry. Therefore, by doing an internship, or a similar out-of-lab-experience, you have the possibility of gaining skills and setting yourself up for the future.

Lesson 4: Broaden your skills outside of your department.

This might seem like another impossible task, but it does not have to be. Schram states that translating skills from one setting to another is a skill in itself, so working outside of your department can broaden your skill base simply through working out how to translate your skills in a new setting. You might be wondering how you can get started? When Schram was a doctoral student, she found joy in teaching and talking about teaching with colleagues. She sought out professional development workshops at her campus’s teaching center, and applied for part-time pedagogy-related employment opportunities outside of her department. She states that it was through these smaller engagements that she developed confidence and career clarity, ultimately leading to a career in educational development. To build skills outside of your department, you can start looking for smaller professional opportunities, such as attending workshops and seminars that may help in future career development.

Lesson 5: Skill building is not a zero-sum game.

After reading the previous couple of lessons, you might be thinking that exploring professional opportunities outside of your department will take away from the progression of your Ph.D. However, this does not have to be the case. Pursuing these “outside activities” can help you develop skills necessary for the next step in your career, make you a more competitive candidate, and more effective in your career. An expanded skill set is valuable for everyone, such as those who strive to be future faculty members in academia, and those looking to leave academia. Schram spoke with students who have pursued opportunities in professional settings, and they have reported that they expanded their core scholarly skills, such as the abilities to link ideas, identify sources of information applicable to a given problem, teach skills or concepts to others, and effectively convey complex information. Therefore, while you will develop core skills through your Ph.D., you can expand on your skill set through applying those skills in different settings outside of your department.

While this is just a brief list of suggestions to help you explore your skills, it is a good starting point. As a science Ph.D. student, I often struggle with imagining how my specific set of lab skills will be translatable for a future career that might not be on the bench. The advice provided by Laura Schram was useful in understanding how a lab task such as troubleshooting a failed experiment, can also be thought of as creative problem solving, or analyzing an issue. A Ph.D. teaches us so much more than just science and it is important that we do not sell ourselves short.

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Junior Editor: Eileen Oni / Senior Editor: Paulina Krzyszczyk/Maryam Alapa

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