What Are the Most Important Skills PhDs Need Upon Graduation?

April 25, 2016 Richard Kahn

grad-caps.jpgSuccessful graduates of a Ph.D. program are armed with the skills that will enhance their future success, regardless of chosen career path. Included among the most important of these skills are scientific writing, critical thinking, and the construction of solid logical arguments combined with a plan for rigorous testing. Despite the importance of these skills, specific formalized training geared at acquiring them is typically limited, often quite variable, and commonly dependent on individual thesis advisors or the voluntary efforts of a small subset of faculty members.

A number of questions arise from a recent article published in Traffic:

  • What approach is your graduate program using to train students in scientific writing, critical thinking, or logical argument construction?
  • How much time should be devoted to formalized training in those skillsets; or should students be left to pick them up through practice?
  • Should it be the responsibility of each graduate program/school to teach students how to write a grant/paper/thesis or is this training the primary responsibility of the research advisor?
  • Does your institution reward faculty who devote large amounts of time and effort to such endeavors, and if so, how?
  • What are the best practices to train students in skillsets that will increase their future job prospects, sense of accomplishment, and job satisfaction?

Every graduate program, at some point, must design a curriculum to optimally train their students in skills that will arm them for the challenges and opportunities that they will encounter in their careers. To reach consensus among a faculty as to what the key concepts and skills that are required in any field may be surprisingly difficult or impossible (and a large topic for another day). But it is widely agreed that improving writing and critical thinking skills are of great value, though difficult to achieve or evaluate. My co-authors and I describe in our article  the program we have developed over 20 years which uses a pre-doctoral training grant as a model to formally teach key skills to early stage graduate students. The steps that take place over the course of a semester long course are those involved in developing a research training grant (e.g., NIH F31) and include:

  1. Identify an important topic,
  2. Provide a brief but persuasive introduction to highlight its significance,
  3. Identify one or two key questions that if answered would impact the field,
  4. Present a series of logical experiments and convince the reader that the approaches are feasible, doable within a certain period of time, and have the potential to answer the questions posed, and
  5. Include citations that demonstrate both scholarship and an appropriate command of the relevant literature and techniques involved in the proposed research study.

Critical to this process is a system that provides frequent, detailed, constructive criticism and fosters behaviors that develop independence and life-long learning skills (e.g., seeking out critical feedback and responding appropriately to it). Central to any such system is the time devoted to this training that is typically provided by a small subset of devoted faculty members. To make this system sustainable requires that the graduate program/school acknowledge and reward such efforts appropriately.

What skills do you feel are the most important for graduate students and/or postdoctoral fellows to master and what approaches does your program take to ensure these skills are attained? We encourage you to share your comments and experiences below.

Image source: Linda Goodhue Photography/Getty Images

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