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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to develop soft skills during your PhD studies

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Let me start today with some sobering news. PhD completion rates are low. Too low. There are numerous reasons why candidates leave their PhD programs. Personal problems, financial issues,… the (bad ) stuff of life. Lack of supervision and guidance can be a problem.

If we leave out all the external causes for leaving a PhD program, we are left with internal causes. In some cases, a candidate has the analytical skills to do the research, but lacks the soft skills to deliver a dissertation and defend. A good technical student can perhaps still need to do some effort to manage his/her project, or to write a sound conference paper.

The good news is: you can learn these soft skills. Universities are realizing more and more that actively encouraging doctoral students to learn soft skills is of mutual benefit. An added plus is that these soft skills are useful for any career path after the PhD, and can be desirable in the industry.

If your university does not provide courses to train your soft skills, you can teach yourself. Just like you can teach yourself to code in another language, you can teach yourself the soft skills you need to manage your research, and present and publish your results. Let’s go step-by-step:

1. Analyze your workflow processes
Have an honest conversation with yourself. How are you currently working? What work do you get done, and what stays behind?

If you find it hard to reply these questions, use the monthly progress monitor, originally introduced by Gosling and Noordam. Set goals for a month, subdivide these into tasks per week, and then evaluate at the end of the month what you accomplished and what not, and identify why you deviated from your planning. Keep doing this exercise on monthly basis (even weekly in the beginning) to learn which type of tasks you struggle with, and to improve your planning. Use your research diary to write your observations.

2. Identify your weaknesses
Based on the previous exercise, you may know which tasks cause you difficulties. Now, go one step deeper: which precise skills are you lacking to carry out these tasks? Analyze this question in your research diary.

For example: say that you struggle to deliver reports or papers by a given deadline. There are many different possible causes for this problem: you can have difficulties with the writing of the text, you can lack the skills to draw the figures, your planning skills may be poor, or you may have a hard time asking your supervisor for help. Be honest with yourself and identify your weakness.

3. Find your learning method
Now that we have identified the problem, let’s look for a solution. How are we going to solve this problem? In order to answer this question, you need to know your preferred learning method. How do you learn soft skills best: through a course (workshop, offline course, online course,…), with the help of a coach, by practicing with the support of your supervisor or peers, or by reading a book? The answer to this question also depends on the type of skill you need to improve – improving your networking skills will require you to practice in real-life situations, and you can only use learning with a book as a supporting method for this case.

Once you know your preferred learning method, see what is available. Carry out a targeted search, book your course, contact a coach, and get your materials ready for studying.

4. Plan your study time
You know what you need to study, and you know how you are going to study. Next step, is planning when you are going to study. Take your planning (even if planning is a skill you are struggling with), and identify when you will devote time to working on this skill. Treat learning this new skill in the same way as you would treat learning an analytical skill required for your research – in the long run, both are equally important!

5. Evaluate yourself
At the end of the time you have devoted to mastering your new soft skill, evaluate yourself. If you have worked on improving your presentation skills, plan to give a presentation to your research group, and ask your peers for feedback, If you worked on improving your networking skills, go to an industry event and try to make a contact with a previously determined number of people. Afterwards, write in your research diary to evaluate how you did and to identify what you can improve even further.

6. Repeat
There is more than one soft skill to learn during your PhD. Repeat the learning process for another skill that you need to improve. Additionally, keep improving the skill you worked on by practicing at every possible occasion. You are now your own teacher – you need to find how to learn a new skill, when to reserve time for learning, and how to take your own exams. Use your research diary to reflect on your progress, see how far you’ve come, and determine what you can improve further.

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