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PhD Skills

Celebrating your PhD self-resilience.

Completing a PhD requires a tremendous amount of self-resilience. This is a key transferable skill to refer to when applying for post-PhD careers as it can give you a competitive edge.

Completing or at least embarking on a PhD is likely to be one of the most intellectually challenging experiences of your lifetime. The very nature of a PhD is designed to be difficult, confusing, and in all honesty extremely stressful. Part of the PhD process is getting comfortable with making mistakes, getting things wrong and learning from these experiences. What’s more is that a PhD is not short lived, it’s an arduous, slow and steady journey. It’s often described as a marathon and not a sprint. With that comes the need to be patient and develop a sense of self-resilience. Self-resilience (or resilience) is the ability to cope with a crisis mentally or emotionally, or to be able to return to pre-crisis status quickly.

In lay terms, this is just basically your ability to deal with stress and navigate and adapt to stressful situations – aka your PhD. It’s not necessarily healthy to be in a state of crisis or chronic stress for prolonged periods of time, however this can and will sometimes happen during your PhD. Even if it’s a short-term crisis, eventually it’s going to happen during your PhD whether you like it or not. Because of this (arguably unhealthy) set up, a PhD in and of itself can be looked upon as a mental exercise in self-resilience. The challenges and difficulties you face provides you with a plethora of opportunities to practice and learn how to navigate extremely stressful situations. With time, this will inevitably improve your self-resilience and provide you with an edge when reaching the next stage of your career.

Outside of a PhD and in a work context, it’s not as common for individuals to be faced with as many opportunities to develop their self-resilience. Usually, people are given tasks that lie within their capacity, or when they lie outside of their skillset, they will be provided with appropriate support to get through it, so they don’t have to figure it out on their own. This is usually a healthier and more conducive way of working, but within a PhD setting this is not a common approach. When things go wrong or challenges are faced outside of the academic world, people just tend to find it hard to handle. This leads to reduced performance at work, and greater dissatisfaction with the job and role. Non-PhDs don’t necessarily have the opportunity to practice their self-resilience and ultimately fail to take on bigger and better challenges/opportunities over time.

As a PhD student you’re practically built to have incredible amounts of self-resilience. This happens throughout your academic studies. When you apply for a PhD position, when you go through peer-review, when you write a publication, when you apply for grants, when you apply for a post-doc, when you write your thesis, when you develop or plan your research out, and when things inevitably don’t go as you planned, you’re having to manage and figure out how to overcome these challenges whilst in a state of stress. What’s even more impressive is that because a PhD can feel extremely slow at times, it can actually feel like you’re not making any progress at all! This can be demoralising and frustrating, but once again you must learn to stick through it, be patient and tap into your self-resilience.

Another close relative to your self-resilience is your problem-solving skills. In challenging situations or crises, you’re forced to adapt and to think outside of the box, to develop innovative or creative solutions. This is partly why PhDs are also well known for their problem-solving skills. When you factor in problem-solving skills with self-resilience it makes more sense why consultancy and project management are popular career paths for PhDs. However, this is not an exhaustive list, self-resilience can be applicable to all future careers.

Having the ability to adapt to change or at least manage difficult situations and not be de-motivated when things go wrong is a rare skill to come by. Most just give up and throw in the towel or say it can’t be done almost too soon. Again, this is a trait that suits entrepreneurship well. Also, self-resilience is great for fast paced and dynamic places of work – which is ironic considering PhDs move at a snail’s pace.

You can also wrap your self-resilience in other values or attributes. Self-resilience can be re-framed as commitment, loyalty, determination, trustworthy, dependable, just basically any term that says, ‘I’m going to be here, and I’m going to figure it out’. In the current job market, companies often hire individuals who align with their company values. If you’ve seen on Glassdoor or LinkedIn that a company has certain values they look for, you can use the sheer fact that you’ve completed a PhD to demonstrate values that align with self-resilience or similar traits like those mentioned above. You can also talk around this in a cover letter, on a CV or at an interview more to really hit the point home. The key here is to leverage the soft skills you’ve developed over the course of your PhD to make you a more attractive candidate.

Wow!

Self-resilience is a strange term, and it’s quite difficult to assess it tangibly. But PhDs are difficult, and in the eyes of non-academics, probably viewed as a lot more challenging and impressive that they are (although they are impressive nonetheless). Use this to your advantage, but don’t get caught in the details of what you’ve studied or the papers you’ve published. Focus more on the skills and attributes a PhD has given you. Think about your transferable skills and how these apply to different contexts. If you take this self-resilience out of academia and put it into a different organisation, what might you achieve? Are there really any limits to your potential?

The only caveat to mention about self-resilience is that we don’t over-glorify it. This may sound hypocritical as up to now we’ve been going on about how amazing and rare self-resilience is. But on a more general front, being in a crisis or a constantly stressful environment is not conducive to your mental health or well-being. Certainly, moments of stress and challenging situations are inevitable and may enable you to reach your peak performance. But these should come in bursts or flurries and not be the status quo. Most people are familiar with, or at least shouldn’t be surprised to learn that PhD students have a higher prevalence rate of mental health difficulties than the general population. This is also why a lot of PhDs often consider/do quit their PhD.

A part of this is due to the constant stress and challenging nature of their work. In other posts we’ve discussed about reaching your full potential and your life values, and if constant stress inhibits your ability to enjoy work or just be happy it’s important to manage this accordingly (this applies for academia also). Try to get an understanding as to whether challenging situations invigorate you or if they contribute to burnout. Does solving complex and difficult tasks make you happy, or does it leave you feeling worn out and needing a break? It’s a tough one to identify and balance, so it’s good to check in with yourself from time to time and think about how you want your career to feel/look like. This is likely to guide you with career hunting and identifying a post-PhD career path.

At the end of the day, a PhD is a catalyst for developing and demonstrating your self-resilience. Conversely, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should only gravitate towards situations that are extremely stressful as these could be detrimental to your well-being and long-term happiness.  


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