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PhD Skills

Cherishing your PhD critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking is a core skill most, if not all, PhD students possess. This skill enables you to evaluate concepts, articulate their flaws and opportunities for improvement without being confrontational. Being able to critically evaluate concepts outside of academic is an asset for any organisation.

Critical thinking is a valued skill not just within the academic world. In fact, critical thinking is one of those core skills every PhD student has as the academic world teaches you to be critical, extremely analytical, and more importantly able to scrutinise pieces of information in a constructive and useful manner. Although critical thinking is rather abstract, it is essentially the rational, sceptical, and unbiased analysis of factual evidence – or supposedly ‘factual’ evidence. Critical thinking will overlap with many other skills, such as problem solving and synthesising information, which we’ve highlighted elsewhere on this site. To really be able to cherish and appreciate your critical thinking skills, it’s important we understand what this looks like in practice and how it can be advantageous in a non-academic setting.

Critical thinking in lay terms can be thought of that ability to criticise and scrutinise information. You don’t necessarily take things on face value, you question, you enquire, and you test the ideas and information presented to you – regardless of the discipline or field. By doing this you’re able to integrate a range of ideas into a more informed judgement and/or opinion. In turn, this is likely to be a better compass to your decision making, problem solving, and conversations with a range of people both in and outside of work. As you progress through any hierarchical ladder it’s imperative to demonstrate these attributes, particularly decision making. If you want to be more senior, you need to think on your own two feet, provide alternative viewpoints or perspectives (if appropriate, don’t just do it for the sake of it), and ultimately lead in some decision making – or at least demonstrate that you have the potential to lead in decision making.

There’s a reason why PhDs are renowned for their critical thinking skills. To be frank, it’s what you’ve been programmed to do by the academic world. Reading published academic findings – only to pick holes in the argument. Going through peer review, or peer-reviewing other people’s work, being scrutinised or scrutinising someone else’s contributions is part of the core fabric of doing a PhD. Have you ever had a peer-review where the reviewer says it’s great and they have no comments? Doubtful. There is no rest for the wicked. The entire PhD experience is a breeding ground for critical thinking, it becomes incredibly difficult to look at things and not be critical from thereon – hence why it’s always listed as a core skill every PhD student has.

In addition to this, your critical thinking really starts to come to the foreground when you develop the confidence to challenge any idea. Not because you’re being difficult, but because the academic field demands it of you. As we get more comfortable during the PhD journey, you’ve mastered first year, and you’ve got your imposter syndrome in check, we start to be able to have healthy conversations or ‘mini debates’ with our supervisors. As you flourish into the expert in your field, you’re able to critique and analyse their way of thinking in a way that is advantageous to your discipline.

This practice will inevitably follow you through life and into your professional (and personal) lives. In a professional context, it’s likely to mean you’re able to critique/evaluate current processes, routine practice, or simply what the general day-to-day working life looks like. This comes incredibly handy for small size businesses and start-ups, as many of the processes evolve and change over time. Having staff within these organisations that are able to challenge and suggest novel/new ideas on how best to do things is invaluable. As organisations grow, things will constantly need to be reviewed and amended – which is where your critical thinking skills can really put you head and shoulders above the rest. Particularly if most people just ‘accept’ that this is the way of doing things.

This obviously becomes more of a challenge for larger, more enduring organisations – they’re likely to have refined much of the processes or when they need refining, it’s substantially harder to implement and change due to the size of the organisation. Nonetheless, your critical thinking skills will still be invaluable. Your changes may feel slightly ‘smaller’ but the impact and reach they’ll have are likely to be more widespread. Small changes in big companies are likely to have a similar impact to big changes in small companies.

It’s easy to say that critical thinking is a core skill needed for certain jobs, such as consultancy and project management for example. However, this is not the be all and end all on where your critical thinking skills can be influential. The list is endless and probably not feasible to list every role where it can be advantageous – but it’s a skill we often overlook as PhDs and academics. It’s common to misunderstand how this can be implemented in non-academic settings. In some contexts, it’s going to be explicitly useful and advantageous to your role, in others, it’s going to be more implicit and an added benefit in a different capacity. Even the ability to critically analyse your own development and skill set will enable you to grow and guide you towards new skills/responsibilities no matter where you end up.

Remember, your PhD is a training programme in critical thinking, there really aren’t many others out there who can deconstruct an idea and evaluate it as well as you can.


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