Studying for a PhD in anything makes you an incredible expert with a very narrow field of expertise. Fortunately, like Daniel painting a fence and waxing Mr Miyagi’s car, doing a PhD gives you far more useful skills than just the direct project outcome.
My PhD was in natural products chemistry. This makes me an absolute gun at evaporating solvent from column fractions and dissolving them in the smallest amount of liquid possible. Yet there were so many other useful skills that I learned during my studies that I didn’t really appreciate at the time.
Here are just some of the useful things that can be learned from a PhD.
Writing research papers is not a natural way of communicating. The writing style is concise and precise with no wasted words but enough detail to make sense to someone outside your project. No pressure.
The hardest part of writing a paper is being able to convert all the reams of data into a single coherent story. A big part of this comes from knowing what to leave out. You can’t do everything at once which is why Future Research is one of the most important sections of the paper.
Being able to do this well is highly valued amongst researchers and the skills only come from practice writing up your own data.
Working smarter not harder
It is easy to become so completely ensconced in the research that we forget to take a step back and have a broader look at our results.
My attitude was always to plough through work in the hope that one day I’ll get it all done or at least under control. This doesn’t work with research. The harder you run at it, the more work you have to do and the worse you do it.
Time is much better spent in planning at the start and then assessing the data at the end of each section before moving on. This sort of information would have been incredibly useful at the start of my PhD.
After almost having a nervous breakdown before my Honours presentation, I set out to learn all about public speaking and how to do it. Turns out that the more you do, the easier it gets. Teaching in tutorials, labs and eventually lecturing knocked that fear right out of me. Nothing like giving a two hour lecture to make a ten minute conference presentation seem like a piece of cake.
This is an insanely useful skill for researchers. Not only do we need to know how to present our work to our peers, but also to the broader public, who fund our research often through taxes if not donations. Being able to tailor how you describe your research based on the background of your audience is a brilliant skill that well worth practising.
It can take you a lot further than just being good at science.
There are incredible opportunities available during a PhD and these will give you many more useful skills than just the project outcomes. And, ultimately, that is what makes it all worthwhile.