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PhD Skills

Intellectual Curiosity: The missing ingredient for post-PhD success.

We often take intellectual curiosity for granted, however it’s a core ingredient to help you thrive in any career you pursue. Having the desire to ask the ‘why’ questions will increase your skillset, opportunities and overall visibility, ensuring career success.

We’ve loosely touched on intellectual curiosity throughout this site. It briefly appears across a range of skills such as; ‘getting stuck in’, your ability to learn quickly, and just improving your skillset from an all round perspective. Intellectual curiosity is the bedrock for PhD success and without it, it’s very unlikely you would have pursued an academic career in the first instance – let alone consider continuing to do one. The one thing that unites all academics and PhDs is this burning desire to ask ‘why’. No matter what the topic, what the context, the objective is always the same – to understand why things are the way they are. Inadvertently, these leads us down a rabbit hole, exploring questions most people wouldn’t ask. Because of this curiosity, we end up learning more, developing new skills, and ironically developing more complex and thought provoking ‘why’ questions. The journey has begun, and things aren’t quite the same from here on out. There will most likely always be a need to ask why, and you won’t always find the answers.

It sounds quite morbid in some respects – like a dog chasing its tail, you’ll never have all the answers, you won’t ever quite reach the destination, but nonetheless it’s going to provide you with a missing ingredient for success that most others lack. Intellectual curiosity is often overlooked, or at least when you’re surrounded by other academics and intellectually curious individuals it’s very easy to take the skill for granted. But the beauty of this skill is that it works across any context, across any career, and is sought after by most if not all employers. The reason intellectual curiosity is in such high demand is because it means you’re more likely to develop within a role, whilst also contributing to new developments and solving complex problems. It’s a win-win for everyone.

When we think about your personal development – having intellectual curiosity will naturally lead you to take on additional responsibilities or engage with tasks that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable doing in the first instance. That itch to ask ‘why’ or improve your understanding will show up in your role. The ‘fringe’ responsibilities will act like a magnet, pulling you in to fulfil your why questions. As a by-product of this behaviour you’ll develop new skills, improve your confidence, and increase your visibility – all contributing to better career prospects in the long term.

We see this in academia now. It’s extremely common for PhD students to take on work outside of their core PhD tasks. Activities like teaching, running conferences, mentoring others, helping other people write papers, applying for additional grants, and possibly even taking on secondary research work alongside the PhD. The intellectual curiosity is a trait and a skill that helps you develop and grow in your role. Something that is likely to serve you well into the future, no matter what you do next. It’s also important we don’t take this for granted. It’s incredibly easy, and common, for most employees to just turn up, do the bare minimum and go home. They stay stagnant.

Other than learning new skills and being able to help a range of people within your role. Intellectual curiosity will also just make you better at everything you do. Even if you’re not necessarily asking ‘why’ questions about additional responsibilities, it’s likely you’ll ask ‘why’ questions about your general day-to-day. Subsequently, this will improve your efficiencies and effectiveness when doing your actual job! By exploring your work, doing your best to understand things, the more likely you are to excel and thrive.

Intellectual curiosity by itself may not get you a job per se, but it’s going to be a transferable skill across any context to really supercharge your opportunities, skills and chances. This really becomes apparent when we think about post-PhD blues and that need for intellectual challenge, if you’re not being intellectually curious in your role it’s likely you’ll just get bored. Having that need to test yourself, stretch yourself and really try and grow is typically a core need for PhDs. And if you’re not getting the opportunity to flex that muscle, well then, it’s likely post-PhD blues will seep in.

Overall, intellectual curiosity will guide you to thrive and grow at a rate thats just that much faster than your peers. Maybe at first tasks will feel mundane, excessive, and unnecessary but with every new curious question comes an opportunity to grow that much more. Over time, this begins to compound and before you know it you’ll be able to cash in on all that hard work and extra skills you’ve developed. The moral of the story, stay curious.


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