Translating Your PhD Skillset

lightbulb in foreground, in background sun rising and illuminating the lightbulb

Some of us, including myself, are enthralled by the luminosity of new knowledge and understanding. Participating in the production of new knowledge or simply basking oneself in the wealth of accumulated knowledge throughout conscious history is as romantic as it can be for those who are drawn to the life of academia.

Nonetheless, life is not only about learning a very specific subdomain of a certain subdiscipline. Feeling comfortable in the minutest detail of an already obscure subject doesn’t always help to bring food to the table (or purchasing the next book to read, paying a journal subscription, or anything that needs money, really).

This fact is worsened by the state of the academic job market nowadays—leaving many starry-eyed-would-be-academics to face the harsh reality of possibly not residing in the coveted room on the uppermost floor of the so-called ivory tower.

Hence the need to adapt.

Be that as it may, what skillset are we bringing into the brutal adaptive environment we are facing today? Surprisingly many if you ask me. Some of what I tell you may be familiar, but you may come out with a different perspective on that particular skill after reading this. Let me tell you at least four of them:

1. Knowledge
No one (or I never met one anyway) will knowingly ask a PhD in Chemistry if they are good at archery or pulling the perfect ratio of an espresso shot. If there is anything that they expect us to have, that would be knowledge of what our PhD is about.

Sure, you will say, “I know a lot about ____ and how that implies to ___, but very little about ____ which is also technically chemistry, but my expertise is …”. But I’d like to remind you that “very little” by a PhD translates into “too many” for most non-experts.

Furthermore, we are not just non-living repositories of knowledge. We are “researchers”, and we bear that name because, duh, we research. Who are more equipped to navigate the treacherous land of obfuscating jargons and formulas and mining what they are trying to say than the PhDs?

2. Very Critical Thinking
Unless you haven’t noticed already, many PhDs stop being fun conversational partners. The “simple question” people ask is “simple” only to the uninitiated; for us who have been on the receiving end of the onslaught of peer reviews, nothing is ever simple

(“What do you think about the meaning of life?” asked a novice. “Well,” the PhD in Philosophy starts, “how much time do we have? Where do we start? I can start from Plato, excuse me, perhaps the so-called pre-Socratics, oh wait, maybe the non-western pre-Socratic philosophers, hmm… I’m not comfortable with the ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ distinction, it’s too coarse… anyway, and then we can go eventually to Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and the most recent article published in …”).

We tend to answer those simple questions very carefully and critically, trying to alleviate possible confusions or objections that may arise in the mind of those who share the incisive mind. Many would think that being critical is not a beneficial skill at all. We have words for those who are overly critical, “nitpicky”, “professor” (oops).

I contend, however, that critical thinking is a tool that if utilized properly would benefit more than many think it would. The key is using the critical thinking skill we have at the proper time and to the proper audience. In short, what we need to (re)learn is the language of the non-experts but not the very critical mind. We already have the mind. Bridge that katana-like mind to industrial “hard problems” and we shall have the skill no one else will ever have without the PhD.

3. Grit
Having a PhD shows that we have true grit. Seriously. Many people in the world who are enrolled in school at some point in their life have had enough with the school. We decided to pursue another 5 or more years (if you don’t count the Masters in between)!

Moreover, the PhD process isn’t always encouraging. In fact, it is a confidence-shattering experience for many. Having our works subjected to critical scrutiny not only by our peers but also by advisors whose intellect we respect for 5 or more consecutive years is the common staple of PhD life. Did I mention the funding and travel grant applications?

People can say many things about PhDs, but easy to give up is not one of them and I could think of no industry that thinks having true grit is not beneficial.

4. Independence
Lastly (in this blog post, anyway), is independence. Schools before PhD consists mainly in comprehending what has been said by other people in a very controlled manner. This week you read this, next you read that, after, you write about this topic, word count . . ., font . . ., etc.

But PhD is different. We are expected to not only read and absorb what has been said but we are also meant to contribute to the burgeoning field with fresh ideas and new findings.

While I’ll be the first to acknowledge the contribution of the advisors and peers (insert acknowledgment here), it isn’t a stretch to say that PhD work is on a higher level of independence. We voraciously read the current scholarship; find a sub-sub-sub-field where something interesting (for less than 20 people) is being discussed; we, then, proceed to contribute something that no one has ever said or done before.

More can be said for those who are pursuing fields where individual, single-authored, work is more common, like the humanities. Many from such category result into being very independent people who know what they must do from start to finish, all by themselves. Once again, I’m at loss at what industry would undervalue that skill.

What are you waiting for? Jot down that cover letter, telling how awesome you are in acquiring those skills during your PhD.

By Vincent Tanzil
Vincent Tanzil