PhD Skills

Being a self-starter – it matters.

Being a self-starter comes naturally do PhDs. Exercising this skill is an incredible asset to help support your growth and development whilst contributing to your personal brand. However, if we’re not careful, this skill can hide us from the credit we deserve.

Completing a PhD is no easy feat, partly due to the ambiguity and the constant problem-solving in the face of new and unfamiliar challenges with minimal support. As we iterate through this throughout our PhD we’re primed and ready to thrive in industry or non-academic careers. Being a self-starter, independent, or with the potential to be relatively autonomous is any employer’s dream. Too often we overlook the importance of this attribute, as we just assume most people will operate at this frequency. In an academic setting, sure, most people work in silos, complete projects independently, and occasionally have contact with the outside world. But outside of academia, this skill can really set you apart, or at the very least, propel you towards long term success.

Being a self-starter is about facing a range of problems or challenges in your role at work, and then just exploring them on your own to try and solve them. Before you dive into your managers (virtual) office asking for guidance, you’ve already explored a few solutions and have a plan of action. Most of the time, you’ll likely have solved problems without your manager even being aware these issues existed in the first place. Novel and unfamiliar things don’t scare you, you have a tendency to just get stuck in and tackle things head on. Elsewhere on this site we’ve already emphasised the importance of getting stuck in and how this can lead to better visibility and opportunities outside of your current role. But being a self-starter is slightly more nuanced than that. Getting stuck in is likely to contribute to more skills development and in turn, transferable skills, whereas taking more initiative and being a self-starter is really about how building trust, credibility, and confidence from your peers to the point where you build a personal brand of the ‘go to person’.

Over time, as you continue to take initiative and solve problems independently, it will lead to improved credibility and trust by your manager and other team members. As this happens, more important and difficult problems will come your way, thus creating a positive feedback loop and perception that you’re able to solve and get things complete. Sure, some things won’t be solvable, but once you have credibility, if you’re the one saying it cannot be done then it’s likely to be true or at least more believable. Over time, as you accumulate trust and confidence from your peers – you’ll naturally take on more seniority helping to supercharge your development and growth.

This is where interesting things start to happen. Constantly solving problems, being self-sufficient and being appreciated by your wider team (depending on the work culture) is likely to build and add to your confidence. Of course, if your confidence grows, you’re likely to become more self-sufficient and more autonomous as you have a new found belief in your own ability – something that is often beaten out of you in academia.

With additional confidence and trust from your peers it puts you in good stead to think about next development opportunities, promotions, and possibly increasing your next salary goals. You’ll be in a stronger position to negotiate a new salary in your current role or in a new one. In essence, your successful completion of tasks and responsibilities is hard evidence and proof that you are capable which subsequently up’s your market value. Depending on your organisation and your life values, there may be more scope here to explore different working hours, work schedules and more as keeping you in the team will be more important due to the added value you’re now contributing.

There is however one downside to being a self-starter, which most PhDs and academics are typically bad at – losing visibility. Being a self-starter is a double-edged sword and it’s important to be aware of this skill to ensure it doesn’t count against you. In short, by being a self-starter and completing things independently, it’s incredibly easy for senior stakeholders to lose touch of what you actually do on a day-to-day basis. Think of it like a car, nobody worries about their car when it’s not making strange noises. The same applies for your job when you just are so competent at solving problems and getting things done.

With this in mind, it’s important to have more open conversations about what it is you’re working on and how long things take as a way to emphasise to others that you’re crushing it. It sounds a bit ridiculous but like in any other social situation, people aren’t mind readers. You need to consciously make an effort for them to understand and appreciate what it is you’re working on. Once again, this also adds to your personal brand, and how people perceive you at work. If others are aware of you doing something impactful and productive, it’s likely that this will pay dividends for you in the long term. However, if you’re not careful, being too good a self-starter can make you fall off the radar and disappear into the background!

So with that in mind, ensure that you remain centre stage, and be celebrated for another incredible skill you possess.

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