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Lessons I’ve Learned in Grad School (Despite Myself)

Posted in: Career Development and Networking
Lessons I’ve Learned in Grad School (Despite Myself)

“Don’t let school interfere with your education” – Mark Twain

We all started our PhDs with stars in our eyes, hoping to make great contributions to technological innovations in our field. However, by the time we are a few years into the program, weighed down by the failures and frustrations of graduate life, we forget what brought us here in the first place and we seem to stop learning. A PhD begins to look like a road to nowhere, but dig deeper and you will start seeing things that you would have missed had you not put in the effort. Intense curiosity and a desire to learn made us opt for graduate school, and in spite of all the failed experiments and the negative results, we all leave with a set of life skills that come in handy no matter where one goes. The real question is, are we trying hard enough to cultivate them while still in school, or indeed, are we even aware of what graduate life is teaching us?

Most PhD students fail to fully appreciate the range of skills and experience they gather en route to the degree. And no, I am not talking about pipetting accurately or counting the exact number of cells on a hemocytometer. I am talking about the proficiencies we gather unknowingly that take us much further in our careers and in life than just the degree or our technical expertise. Here is a list of skills that everyone can pick up while still in school that can be applied to a wide range of careers:

  1. Perseverance and Diligence: Do you remember all those endless hours of backbreaking work that you did but had nothing to show for? Do you remember the dark gloom descending, telling you that you will never get out? But do you also remember picking yourself up, getting back to the problem at hand, and finding a way to persevere, troubleshoot and come up with something that works in the end? That’s life. Things don’t work, plans go haywire, and yet the drive to pick ourselves up and carry on is the best asset we have, and that’s the one thing we learn at graduate school – to never give up.
  2. Time management: I can say from my own experience that anybody who has gone to grad school has to become a guru at multitasking. You have multiple experiments running, classes to teach and grade, a proposal to write, and – for those fortunate enough – a social life outside the lab, to which you have to bring your smiley face while explaining to your civilian friends how you are the next best thing after Einstein (as long you do not believe your own myth!). So you might not realize, but you have become a pro at multitasking and time management – all while maintaining your sanity!
  3. Writing and communication skills: Now that I am at the tail end of my own PhD, I have lost count of the number of reports that I have had to write and the number of presentations that I have had to prepare over the last few years. I do vaguely remember my advisor returning my manuscripts dozens of times with corrections, which I now realize has improved my technical writing skills significantly, even though they annoyed me to no end back then. One belated lesson that I have learnt is that in addition to technical writing, it is not a bad idea to volunteer for other writing workshops, classes, etc. just to keep the flow of words going in your mind – it is a constructive distraction from the mind-numbing series of experimental failures!
  4. Analytical skills: Depending on the field of research one is in, we gather a set of analytical abilities that can be put to great service once we are out in the real world. No matter what field of research you are engaged in, taking a few courses in biostatistics, or bioinformatics, something which has to do with number crunching keeps our mind sharp and hones our analytical skills, and once out of graduate school, it can come in pretty handy.
  5. Team work and collaboration: Not many jobs teach us to get along with a team of different-minded people, but a PhD does. We learn to work as a team, collaborate within and outside our lab and learn to deal with various kinds of personalities. Inevitably, you will have to share your workspace with some people who have – how shall I put it kindly? – disagreeable personalities (and PhD life does breed some pretty tasteless ones!), but hey, pat yourself on the back when you really can pull off working with them!
  6. Creative problem-solving: This is the skill that we wanted to use the most – our creativity – when we started out at graduate school. But pretty soon we forget about it in the midst of thousands of deadlines and scheduled experiments. However, by keeping the creative problem-solving part of my brain active, I have found myself much more flexible and capable of coping with the daily drudgeries of graduate life; the more you use it, the more you build on it.

So now that we have taken note of the skills we have accumulated during our PhD, let’s talk about how we can apply them to careers beyond academia. The table below shows the universe of opportunities out there and the skills it takes to make them work. The more tick marks there are, the more applicable the skill is to that career. So pick the one that matches your skillset best!

Lessons I’ve Learned in Grad School (Despite Myself)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, either of skills or the careers possible after a PhD. Rather, think of this as the starting point for thinking about your career options. I have no doubt that the most gifted among you will even invent your own careers.  Whether we are at the beginning, middle, or end of grad school life, let’s keep in mind that our education has just begun – may we keep learning!

For more information on how to apply your hard-earned skills to alternative careers, check out our previous articles on communication skills, teamworking and networking, analytical skills, and time management.

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Image Credit: UWW ResNet


  1. micronaut on April 7, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Good article. Every student starting out should take note of looking up additional courses as they’re a break from the usual routine, and can create new contacts as well as skill sets. Be as diverse as you can to avoid getting stuck in a 1 dimensional existence of your own research problem. Learn everything and anything. You might be doing a degree in biochemistry, but 3 years on you could be managing a business, or building a sky scraper.

    I also had to learn tenacity and initiative very early on as I battled my supervisor every day for 4 years. Every request was denied, every piece of writing ignored, every opportunity to publicly humiliate was taken.

    Be ready to fight every day of your PhD, and never give up. ever.

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