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PhD Life PhD Skills

Developing better interpersonal skills during your PhD.

Having good interpersonal skills is essential to having a successful career, especially if you plan to leave academia. During your PhD, it’s important that you don’t neglect your interpersonal skills, you should be making a conscious effort to improve them!

Not many people in the world end up completing a PhD, in fact a lot of sources highlight that only 1.1% of the world population have a PhD. Given this statistic, it is fair to say that it takes a particular type of person to be able to go on and complete one. PhDs represent some of the smartest people. They are able to consolidate vast amounts of information, conduct pioneering research, and make sense of really complex and often abstract ideas. Despite this, one of the biggest weaknesses PhDs often have is interpersonal skills, or their ability to work with other people. This isn’t necessarily a hard and fast rule but doing a PhD gives you a slightly unusual work life which may start to have a negative impact on your interpersonal skills. 

Interpersonal skills are essentially soft skills, but more specifically they’re your social skills. Interpersonal skills extend to traits such as active listening, being a good team player, having good communication skills, being flexible, approachable, patient, and understanding of others. Sometimes it also includes having a good sense of humour. However, the thing about these interpersonal skills is that they aren’t necessarily taught at any point, you just sort of ‘learn’ them as you grow up from other people. If you’re raised from a privileged background, don’t have much exposure to different types of people, or don’t interact with a lot of people on a daily basis your social skills sort of become one dimensional. If you’re not careful you only know how to interact with a small sample of people.

Completing a PhD can emulate this, as the majority of academics are typically from similar backgrounds, with similar interests, and similar hobbies. To compound things further, the vast majority of a PhD can be very solitary and very lonely. This drastically reduces the number of social interactions you have at work and on a daily basis. Even if you are involved in a team-project, or work in an office/lab that has a lot of other people, it’s very rare to have long discussions/social interactions with a diverse set of people. Because a PhD is so long, minimum of usually 3 years, it’s very easy to fall out of ‘practice’ when it comes to socialising, or you can feel a bit rusty when you interact with non-academics. This can be a big cause for concern as if you do decide to leave academia and move into industry it’s really important to have good interpersonal skills as this will help you demonstrate how you can fit into a bigger team, or show how you can work well with others.

It also helps massively if you have good interpersonal skills when applying for jobs. In addition to being able to communicate your PhD and your transferable skills to a non-academic, having good interpersonal skills can also make up for some gaps in your CV/résumé or your current skill set. Employers will be substantially more likely to hire you and offer you a job outside of academia if they warm to you, if they like you, and if they think you will fit well into their team. You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you have poor interpersonal skills you won’t ever get a job. As the working world evolves where collaboration is more common, and career changes are expected for most people – interpersonal skills are pivotal to having a successful career after your PhD. Similarly, having good interpersonal skills where other people warm to you can be a good way to network, as people might suggest opportunities to you as they think you’re a friendly, well-rounded person.

But how do you work on your interpersonal skills? This is sort of a tricky one, because almost everyone thinks they have good interpersonal skills already, so it might be better to think of it as how do you improve your interpersonal skills. Try not to focus to much on the formal skills, such as presenting for instance. This is more of a hard skill and you definitely wouldn’t chat about your weekend to a colleague the same way you would deliver a presentation – it’s a different artform. The best way to improve your interpersonal skills is to interact a lot, and with a lot of different people – especially people who you might not necessarily have anything in common with. It’s really easy to talk to a fellow PhD student who is researching the same thing as your, or even talk to any PhD student as can share similar experiences about your PhD. But people with the best interpersonal skills are the ones who are able to talk freely and comfortably with people who they don’t have anything in common with. This means other people in your office, people who share the same building as you, people who you pass on the street, people you meet at conferences, people you meet at parties, people you meet almost anywhere – the more the better.

Yay, friends.

At first it can be daunting but it’s important to keep your social skills fresh and up to date. Just like anything else in your PhD, it’s more about practice and a lot of repetition before you truly have mastered something. The same is true for your interpersonal skills. It’s definitely something you should be trying to do every day. The more you practice, the more it will feel like second nature. It will allow you to build better relationships with more people and is likely to pay you back in the future when it comes to career related decisions such as deciding not to do a post-doc, networking for jobs, and moving into industry. Developing good interpersonal skills is also something you can do outside of your PhD/work hours. It also demonstrates why you should have more things going on in your life than just your PhD – you shouldn’t be stunting your human growth and development for your intellectual aspirations to complete a PhD. 

Just because it is a ‘simple’ point to get across, and seems like common sense, don’t overlook it! It could actually be your strongest attribute, putting you head and shoulders above the rest!


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