Soft skills for PhDs - part 1

Pranav S. Kulkarni
15 Jul ’21

In the fast paced academic world of today, soft skills can either make or break the future of a PhD candidate. Contrary to popular belief, academics and PhD students require soft skills and management techniques along with their usual rigorous technical and scientific expertise in their jobs.

Unlike some of your hard skills, these soft skills will also be transferable to other jobs in other domains. Therefore, I believe it is definitely worthwhile to actively develop and be aware of your soft skills.

In this blog series, I will outline some of the soft skills that I think are worthwhile for you as a PhD student to develop. Let’s start with the first five:

1. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is an obvious place to start since a PhD thesis heavily features an exercise in developing critical thinking in a specific domain of expertise. However, a critical thinking ability in general is also something that a PhD student needs to develop.

For example, I quickly realized that I needed to think critically and carefully when deciding which question to ask in an open seminar or in open talks at my department even though it had nothing to do with my everyday work.

2. Time management

This is another one of the obvious ones. If you are to plan, execute and successfully complete any project within the stipulated time, an acute sense of time management is very important. For a PhD student, even simple tasks such as replying to emails, updating meeting minutes, writing subsequent drafts and manuscripts, etc. can demand appropriate time management.

In my opinion, my Dutch colleagues and supervisors take this ability more seriously than any other soft skill. Therefore, I think this skill should be a part of your arsenal.

3. Brainstorming

Some might also call this ‘problem solving’. I think that as a PhD student, you need to be able to think analytically and rationally to generate solutions. This ‘brainstorming’ ability can facilitate not just your work, but also supports your partnerships and collaborations which is common in large projects with multiple doctoral candidates. On the flipside of solving problems, brainstorming is also relevant to generating interesting questions which can then be solved.

I think the most venerated and brilliant professors or researchers in my department all share a common trait which is excellent brainstorming ability.

4. Ethical decision making

As a research student, your work is very personal. Therefore, it is important that you develop a sense of scientific ethics during the course of your study. Being an ethical decision maker implies that you take the responsibility of furthering the knowledge in your domain seriously. Every important work decision should be judged ethically by you. It can seem easy to be reckless or dismissive about ethics in your decisions since you have great power to shape the narrative. But ultimately, a good ethical decision bolsters the quality of your research and fosters trust among fellow academics.

For example, while presenting my first paper that involved a lot of trial and error, I had to make decisions such as “should I mention all the methodologies that I tried that failed to work or just mention the ones that worked in the end and discuss them?”.

5. Negotiation and teamwork

I think this is also one of the obvious soft skills that you need as a PhD student. If you have ever worked with anyone on a team or had a supervisor/ boss, you know that negotiation skills are very important. However, as a PhD student, I think negotiation should also be appended by good team working ability. This is a bit different than the negotiation skills required by businessmen or diplomats. Unlike those professions, research work is not a zero sum game. Negotiation tactics should be developed such that it helps you as well as your team of colleagues and supervisors reach the best possible outcomes.

There are many more soft skills relevant to the trajectory of a PhD student that are also transferable to future jobs in any domain. Want to know which ones? Next week I will share five more!

Recent blog posts