Developing Extra Skills: The Meta-Skills of How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

Graduate school is a force that sucks all your time and the very life force from your body. Each discipline has its own demands, whether they are classwork, clinical work, labs, teaching and grading, fieldwork, writing, or some combination thereof; and then there is the reading (oh, good Lord, the reading). I went from nine hours of sleep per night, heavy drinking, much socializing, with a job, and with a lot of hobbies as an undergraduate to a monk-like existence of little more than grad school and four hours of sleep per night. Not particularly healthy, but there it is. These are not even the frustrating and demoralizing parts of graduate school. To me, the worst part is that I was magically expected to have a set of skills that I did not learn as an undergraduate and was never sufficiently taught as a graduate student. As a professor, I see that the difference between okay students and outstanding students is their pursuit of extra skills, the meta-skills of being an effective graduate student. Although the specific skills vary across disciplines, every graduate student has extra skills to be learned. Rather than being accidental and due to some random experiences, the pursuit of extra skills is best met with mindful and strategic effort.

Nearly every graduate student has had the experience of meeting with their supervisor or PI and hearing, “I thought you knew how to do this.” Good supervisors tend to say, “Okay, let me teach you.” Poor supervisors tend to say, “That is disappointing. I need to find someone who knows how to do this.” This missing skill could be anything from a statistical procedure, assessment technique, lab procedure, ethics proposal formatting, giving feedback, writing skills, oral presentation, or some other specific skill. Usually we acquire the skills in such an ad hoc manner that we usually do not appreciate the skill development until we look back and simply label this as “experience.”

The most difficult part of any problem-solving process is identifying the problem. For new graduate students the hard part is that you do not know what you do not know. Rarely will a PI have a task analysis prepared consisting of the skills necessary to be successful in that lab. Although some professional programs have a list of competencies that need to be developed for professional success, those are typically incomplete. It is always worth checking with your PI, postdoc, or senior graduate student as to whether it is worth the effort to learn a specific extra skill; but the initiative will always be on you. That said here is the process and some common extra skills that are worth learning.

There is a good rule from Stephen Covey’s popular book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that some time needs to be invested in sharpening the saw. This is a form of professional development, skill acquisition, and self-improvement. Sharpening the saw does not only happen after graduation, but is part of graduate school as well. The general rule is to dedicate 10% of your work time to developing the extra skills that sharpen the saw. Therefore, figure a minimum of four hours per week planned and protected. I am not saying that this is easy — in fact, it is difficult and exhausting. But the ability to protect and use these four hours per week in a strategic approach to developing the meta-skills of graduate school will pay off.

Collective peer improvement sessions are fantastic ways to pool resources and priorities. Many students generate and hold journal club meetings, which are a form of developing extra skills. However, journal club meetings could just as easily be repurposed as coding lessons, organization, writing workshops, lab procedure tutorials, and so on. Working as a team can share the burden and validate the value of the extra skill being learned.

Most extra skill development will be via reading. There is already so much to read that it is overwhelming. Where do you start? I am of the mindset that breadth of skills and knowledge is extraordinarily important, and only a few subsets of knowledge need to be known in depth. For most areas of study, I recommend three domains of extra reading: methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history of your field of study. In nearly every field, a deep dive into the specifics and even minutia of methodology can present golden opportunities. At the least, methods are a tool box; and the more tools that you have the more questions you can answer. Philosophical underpinnings of any field can result in some pretty dry reading. But understanding the philosophy of science for the general context in which your field is situated can help to provide the big picture of your research. Finally, the history of your field is important to provide a temporal context and because many of us experience the ontology recapitulates phylogeny issue. Often, new graduate students think that they have come up with a brilliant novel research question when, in fact, that question was already asked and answered over 30 years ago. You will read the basics in your field through classroom work and suggested papers from your PI. But to be effective, you must go beyond. Focus on methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history are great places to start your literature search and extra readings.

Although the other extra skills vary across disciplines, here are some suggestions that have been helpful for me:

  • Finances and Bookkeeping. I am fortunate to have learned these skills as part of a part-time restaurant job I had as an undergraduate and during my first year of graduate school (I also learned to cook at this job). In my career, I have been a lead psychologist in a hospital setting where I was responsible for a budget. The success of grant writing is largely due to the ability to justify budgets. Universities always audit any component of the work that involves money or purchased goods. My elementary bookkeeping skills have served me well.
  • Programming and Software Development. Basic coding and programming skills are requirements for many fields of study. These needs will always be changing and evolving. Typically, once you understand the logic of language acquisition, it is easier to learn new skills along the way. I am now in the middle of learning the basics of R for statistical analysis. It reminds me of the old school approaches as we used in the late 1980s era SAS and LISREL, but far more flexible. That I have basic coding skills is quite likely making learning a new method easier than it would otherwise have been.
  • Social Media. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and others are second-languages for the current generation of graduate students. However, the ability to use these approaches (and website design and development) for branding, crowd sourcing information, finding and acquiring funding, inter-university collaboration, and international research sharing is a specific and mindful skill that is worth developing.
  • Organization and Planning. Carefully organizing limited time is not something that people are born with. It is worth learning the techniques for study skills, time management, self-care, and structured learning. There is no need to waste time reinventing the wheel, there are excellent approaches and techniques available. It is a good investment of time to develop a highly organized and strategic approach to work.
  • Teaching and Supervising. Learning how to provide feedback and communicate complex information takes a lot of practice and experience. If you ask most senior professors how they developed the skills (if they have the skills), then they probably do not have a good answer for you. They will likely say that they learned on the streets or through trial and error. This is not necessary. There are many courses, tutorials, podcasts, and readings that support high-quality teaching and supervision. It is worth developing these skills even early in a graduate career.
  • Networking. Go meet people, you nerds. It is much easier to be social at conferences and other professional events than purely social events because you all have one thing in common – your field of study. For most senior scholars, at least one-third of their published papers (likely more) are due to a collaboration or inspiration of someone you have met at a conference or interacted with online. I have a colleague whose entire career success is because he is excellent at conferences. Everyone knows this gregarious professional. Any time there is an invited paper for a special issue, need for a chapter in a book, need for collaborator on a grant, or someone needs support for co-authorship on an article; they remember this guy they met at a conference and invite him. Meet people, find common ground, support those people, and follow-up. Overall, it is somewhat surprising that so many experienced researchers have poor networking skills.
  • Blogging. This seems simple, but blogging is an opportunity to write in an experimental fashion without judgment. This is an opportunity to communicate personal, professional, or scientific information in a simple manner. Blogging can range from a sophisticated outreach and knowledge translation activity to personal rants. Whatever works for you is fine. This is an opportunity to develop and practice a professional writing style that is clear, accessible, and makes you mindful as to the tone of your writing.

There are certainly extra meta-skills that will further your graduate and professional career (e.g., laboratory techniques, cleaning and sterilizing, electronics, computer design, construction, welding). Quite a few of those skills are discipline specific. Do not wait for random experiences to inform the meta-skills that you develop as a graduate student. Dedicate at least four hours per week, work with your peers, read extra papers strategically, and develop useful skills.




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