PhD Skills: What it takes to make it as a PhD student.

     Many undergraduate students that I talk to say that they never considered pursuing a career in research because they didn’t think they had what it takes to get a PhD.   Then, when I ask them what they think it takes to make it, I am always surprised that the reply I hear most often is “that you must be beyond smart.  Genius style creepy smart.”.   After a moment of being flattered (or not) I then come back to my senses and ask them if they think that I am a creepy smart genius.   They quickly say “No way, Dr. B.  But you are the rare (I hear “cool”) exception. You’re smart without being the over the top non-social genius level.  And you are good at explaining really complicated stuff in a simple and easy to understand way.”  Thanks.  I think? 

     This recently got me thinking about……yes, whether I should be offended that most of my students don’t think of me as a genius….but more so about all the successful PhD students I had encountered, and what characteristics they all had that allowed them to be successful.  This also came during a time when I had the very sad and unfortunate experience of having to tell a PhD student in my lab that they were not progressing sufficiently and would likely not be successful at ultimately receiving a PhD.  So what does it take to make it?  Do you already naturally have some of the skills that might make you a good candidate for completing a PhD program? 


Here is my top 10 list of characteristics of a good PhD student (David Letterman style):

10. Getting accepted into a PhD program.  Having all the skills listed below won’t mean much if you haven’t done the prep work to make yourself competitive for acceptance into a graduate program.  There is lots you can do in high school and as an undergraduate to make yourself a stand out!   Check out our blog entitled “Summer Research Experience” for some helpful tips.

9. Ability to work independently and without constant oversight.  The sky is really the limit on how and when you perform your experiments and research.  The more you work, the quicker you will figure out answers and move on to the next experiment.  The national average to complete a PhD is about 6.7yrs (  It takes some students as little as 4 years (rare) and others as many as 8 or 9 years (also rare).   No one is going to stand over you and time-manage your classes, teaching responsibilities and experiments.  You must be able to plan this out and establish timelines and milestones for yourself.

8.  Know about career pathways you wish to utilize your PhD for once you receive it.  Without a clear objective for what you want to do once you get your PhD (and do you REALLY need a PhD to do what you are passionate about as a career?) it can be easy to quit when things get challenging.   However, beware.  You may identify a career path and decide that one of the characteristics require for completing a PhD is not necessary for your chosen career (think industry scientist versus a professor at an academic university.  They use very different skill sets).  This is a dangerous way to think.  The PhD prepares you for many many diverse career directions.  It is true you may not use all of the skills developed during your PhD program, but you still want to have them.  This will be useful if an unexpected career change ever occurs.  At the end of the day if you have a PhD, the expectation is that you have acquired the full training to be a successful PhD….regardless of whether you use them in your chosen career path. 

7.  Common sense and some smarts (but genius status not required).  I didn’t mean to dismiss that the fact that, of course, you need to have some smarts to be successful as a PhD.  That goes without saying, however, being smart is NOT at all sufficient to complete a PhD program.  Not by a long shot.  Rest assured, if you are reading this blog and most of it makes sense, you’re probably smart enough :-).  And common sense and the ability to learn and comprehend new information and ideas are extremely important.   This will also be useful when you need to troubleshoot experiments.  Most of the time there won’t be someone there holding your hand.  If an unexpected problem comes up, can you use common sense and logic to figure out how to fix it?   This is a pretty key to your success and you will draw upon these learning experiences later.

6.  Open-mindedness to new ideas & creativity. Do you have the ability to think creatively about a problem in the field and several possibilities for what it might all mean?  Science is a moving target.  Always changing based on the latest findings.  Can you adapt your thinking to new information?

5. Being able to collaborate and interact with other scientists is KEY.   You cannot do science in isolation even though it is often presented in the media as a solitary pursuit of one mad scientist.  This is simply false.   You must interact with: others in your lab (as you are troubleshooting problems or need help.  It is pretty critical to your success that you get along well with others in your lab group), other students in your department (as you go through your program and need moral support during challenging times in lab it is good to have someone to commiserate with that is not in direct competition with you in the same lab), other faculty in your program (as your professors in class, program advisors, exam committee members and dissertation committee members), and other scientists in your field (as you share your results by giving talks or at scientific meetings).

4.  Independent and logical thought. You need to be able to synthesize lots of data from others and yourself into your own assessment of what is going on or true.  Your advisor will provide the seeds of interesting projects to pursue under their guidance but the ultimate driving force behind the growth of the research is in the hands of the PhD student. Can you present why you are studying what you are studying in a logical way?  Can you convince others of its importance?

3. A good moral compass and a respect for the scientific process.   Many many (many, many) times the data from experiments will NOT support your brilliant hypothesis.   The data is the data and needs to be properly controlled and interpreted.  Results cannot be manipulated to fit your pre-conceived ideas (or your timeline for graduation).  That is your duty as a scientist.  Period. 

2. Having the spirit of scientific inquiry!   You must have a passion for the pursuit of scientific knowledge and genuine desire to discover or learn something new.  The learning never stops and is like a constant driving and motivating force.  This is the thing that keeps us scientists up at night thinking about an interesting new problem! 

1. Persistence!  After many conversations with colleagues about this exact topic I’d say that this is the number one characteristic that most faculty will list for wanting in PhD students they are recruiting to their lab.  Getting this degree requires a certain “stick-to-it” ness.  If you are prone to give up easily when things get challenging or experiments don’t work, then the PhD may not be for you.   In my mind, the P in PhD has always stood for Persistence!


    There are many other characteristics/skills beyond these top 10 that you will develop in graduate school.  Here is a link to an expanded listing of PhD skills where you can assess yourself for common skills expected of PhD students.  (click on the links next to each cloud to get specific examples of what each skill is in detail). See if you can objectively assess yourself on a scale of 1-5 for each characteristic.  1=no evidence, 2-poor, 3-good, 4- excellent, 5-outstanding.  Better yet, if you are doing undergraduate research (which you will have after reading my other blog) have your advisor or supervisor in that lab complete the assessment for you.

    Can you objectively say that you score high in one particular category?   Congrats, you now recognize the importance of that particular characteristic of yours to obtaining a PhD (hold on to it), and perhaps have one less area of growth to focus on.   Realize that the PhD program will help develop these skills in you and that you don’t have to come with them all (or any of them) on day one.  However, it is helpful to recognize what skills you will be expected to have once you graduate.  It may also help you understand the role that some of the processes that you have to go through during your program play in the development of these key/core skills.  That qualifying exam marks a major milestone of your development of some core competency skills.  And that defense is the ultimate demonstration of many of the skills you have developed.  You (not your boss) are expected to be the expert on your research area by that time (but remember, it takes an average of 6.5 long years to get to this point.  You are ready by then.  Plus, you really enjoy the process for the most part because you have characteristic #2!)

  The last and perhaps most important requirement is that you RECOGNIZE the core skills you need to receive the PhD, AND appreciate the importance of each.   If you don’t value one and think it is unimportant it will be very hard for you to develop the necessary skill, and you will be resistant to your programs attempts to grow this skill.  That will make success much more challenging.

#taketomakeit  #PhDskills  #PhDstudents

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