The personal skills you gain from a PhD

With so much demand on PhD researchers to produce more and more academic achievements that they can list on their CV – conference papers, journal articles, public engagement, awards, creation of impact, funding attracted, classes taught, the list goes on and on – it’s easy for the other achievements to be pushed to one side, forgotten in the quagmire of research expectations.

I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit. The constant competition (whether it’s conscious or not), to have the ultimate academic CV, to land one of the dwindling number of jobs in a time where there has been a hiring freeze in universities, means that we’ve lost focus on ourselves. We’ve lost sight of what else doing a PhD can give us, outside academic job prospects. I know a lot of people who would consider themselves failures if they, like a growing number of PhD graduates, didn’t land an academic job after they finished. But every single person who completes a PhD, no matter how full or sparse their academic CV is by the end of it, has achieved a great deal.

A PhD is a personal achievement, not just an academic one. Our self-worth shouldn’t be tied up in academic activities, despite the fact that these are the only things we can list on our CVs. That’s an unfortunate fact. But everyone should take the time to consider how far they’ve come outside of their academic accomplishments.

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Doing my PhD has given me more personal skills, and encouraged more personal growth, than I could possibly have imagined. When I look back at all of the setbacks, bruises, terrible drafts and bad supervisions, I don’t think about those things – I think about what I’ve learnt from them, and how far I’ve come since. It astonishes me that I was able to pick myself back up, accept the knocks, and keep fighting. Resilience is one of the most important unsung heroes of the personal skills that every PhD student becomes an expert in. While imposter syndrome among PhD students is on the rise, it really shouldn’t be. Every single person who fights another day towards getting their PhD is no imposter.

With that realisation, I’ve become more confident. Confident in my ability to keep going, knowing that whatever life throws at me, I can fight back. Confident that I can always improve, that I can keep growing, and learning, and getting better. Confident even in my ability to do public speaking, something I never thought I would achieve. Confident in my ability to never let my mental illnesses hold me back.

For me, this has taken a lot of courage. Any PhD takes courage, especially to see it through to completion. But it also takes a lot of courage to accept yourself for who you are, both your strengths and your weaknesses; to accept your successes and failures; and to admit when you were wrong, or know you could have done better. It takes a lot of courage to gracefully accept setbacks, knocks, and criticisms, and to learn to turn these negatives into positives, to see them as learning opportunities and ways to build yourself up, rather than to see them as reasons that you’re an imposter who’s ‘not good enough’.

Learning to do all of these things also gives you the skill of being able to adapt to change. This is something I’m hoping to talk about in more detail in a future blog post, but one of the greatest things a PhD teaches you – on both an academic and a personal level – is the ability to be able to embrace change, rather than try to prevent or resist it. PhDs naturally change over the course of their completion, as do your plans, but you also change with them.

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This isn’t even to mention the skills you gain in time-management, organisation, critical thinking, analysis, writing, editing, and everything else that goes along with a PhD – the stuff that you don’t really tend to think about as achievements, but definitely should – and at least these can go on your CV!

But it’s the stuff that you can’t really list that I think is the most important. A PhD gives you skills that range far beyond the academy, personal skills that you will carry with you wherever life takes you afterwards. It helps shape you, not just as a researcher, but as a person. When I look back at who I was before I started, I can see how much I’ve grown in the time since. Every PhD researcher should take the time to really consider how much they’ve learnt, not from books, but from their experience.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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