Dig Deeper – Using the PhD to Advance Profitable Skills

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Improving a skill sometimes feels like trying to master a game where the pieces and rules keep changing. You start with a hand full of cards and place your bet, but someone rolls a die, the next player moves their rook, and then somehow you lose half your hand. Just as you think you have finally achieved a deeper understanding of the rules, a voice in the distance calls out “Uno!”

The laborious process of learning and relearning (and sometimes unlearning) sums up the Ph.D. experience. Beyond research, graduate school is an incredible opportunity to hone valuable skills.  For instance, I hope to graduate as a much stronger teacher and writer. However, improving any of your skills will require time and the will to dig deeper. Below, are some approaches that may help along the way.

Understand your purpose and tools

In any skill you want to improve, you must first define what is considered “good.” For instance, in high school, we were taught an essay contained five paragraphs, and each paragraph contained five sentences. However, as you read the news, opinion pieces, or research studies, you will find that this is rarely ever the case.

Defining “good writing” and training towards that was the topic of a captivating lecture on effective writing given by Larry McEnerney, the  Director of the University of Chicago’s Writing Program. In this lecture, McEnerney analyzed exemplary literature reviews to demonstrate how each word should be used as a tool to serve the purpose of the article. Although McEnerney speaks specifically of writing, we can consider this advice for any skill.  For instance, tools for persuasive speaking may include words, as well as body language, vocal range, and visual aids. Just as McEnerney turned to highly cited reviews to understand how to use these tools, consider studying the people and pieces that seem to achieve their purpose.

Seek guided practice

Employing the tools you’ve identified is tough but imperative. I have written about what I’ve read to improve my teaching, but I had to try these techniques to benefit from them. Finding groups in your institute or community that can help you dig deeper is crucial to improving your tools. The Teaching Academy at Johns Hopkins, the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), NIH BEST, and my advisor have all been incredibly helpful in providing guidance and constructive criticism for my teaching and writing.

If you feel limited by your local community, consider using sites like Twitter and Meetup to build a support network. When I was creating a computational biology course at BUGSS and was considering using R, I discovered R-Ladies Baltimore.  At one of their events, experts taught me more about R and packages for gathering data from the internet. Had I not attended this event, I would not have met these people and gained this valuable information.

If it’s worth it, keep digging

It is easy to get frustrated while advancing in a skill. You become hyper-aware of your shortcomings, as you process and apply massive amounts of information. Over time, you may find yourself growing tired, wondering whether all that effort is worth it. Digging deeper is truly exhausting, but advancing to a new level, requires digging. In a recent post, Sarah Dickinson (Phelan) offers relavent advice – “remember your why.” If advancing in that skill is important to you, keep digging.

I started writing for the NIH BEST blog last October to dig deeper with my writing. Through this experience, I have received invaluable guidance from our Editor-In-Chief, Laura Daniel. Also, all of our BEST Bloggers have exposed me to eclectic and powerful styles of writing. The Ph.D. experience can be strenuous at times, but I hope my posts have guided you and provided glimpses into the more rewarding aspects of graduate life.

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