Going Beyond the Syllabus: 6 Life Skills I’m Learning from My PhD Degree

4 years after completing my masters and after 2 years of working as a researcher, I am now finally enrolled as a PhD student.

Here are 6 skills I am learning as a PhD student:

#1: Improving organisational skills

My close friends have always accused me of being slightly OCD. It is true that I tend to organise my room and my surroundings in a specific manner. But now since I am pursuing a PhD degree I am thankful for this habit I have cultivated.

Organisational skills as a PhD student are one of the most important factors to reduce day-to-day stress and obstacles while carrying out research. I have organised all literature related to my project neatly in a file and all journal articles by my supervisor separately which I refer to every now and then.

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Since I am the only PhD student in my laboratory, I have prepared clear standard protocols and a booklet of recipes for every buffer needed for all the experiments. There are tons of things I need on a daily basis in the lab and so organising everything saves a lot of time every morning.

I have been a very academic person all my life, but now I realise how liberating it is to learn for oneself without the need to prove your knowledge.

#2: Learning how to learn

I love universities. I love attending lectures in classrooms where others have done the same for centuries.

I worked as a researcher at Lund University and now I am pursuing my 3rd degree at one of Europe’s oldest and best universities. I feel like I am going back in time.

  • University of Melbourne (1853)
  • King’s College London (1829)
  • Lund University (1666)
  • University of Pavia (1361)

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Since day 1 of my undergraduate I have been living my dream. My dream: attending lectures in the best universities around the world.

Though my first few years abroad were mainly academic, I later became a lot more brave and curious and started exploring and traveling alone. After tons of exams and several research projects, I am now learning how to learn.

A PhD is not just about knowing facts, it about finding out what you need from the best resources. There are several facts that I knew by heart 6 years ago and have now forgotten, but now when I refresh my memory I have no exams lurking around the corner, I am in fact learning for myself.

I have been an academic person all my life, but now I realise how liberating it is to learn for oneself without the need to prove your knowledge. I read and study and make colorful notes (just like I have always done), but the difference is that now it is to clear my own doubts, not to be used for an upcoming exam. And what I am realizing about myself is that this method makes me want to keep learning more.

#3: Become an expert on a specific topic

I feel like by the time I finish my PhD I will be a burgeoning expert in my field.

I am learning so much almost every day. I am learning just how much hard work and effort is required to truly master a technique. It makes me realize how rewarding this journey is going to be — a journey from apprenticeship to professional.

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The reason I always wanted to do a PhD was because I wanted something for myself, a topic which only belongs to me, and now I feel how challenging, exciting and motivating it can be to have something to do which is solely your job to do.

Communication during PhD is not just about communicating scientific facts but also building relationships and relating to others around.

#4: Improving communication skills

I have presented posters, spoken at conferences, participated in journal clubs for many years already, but since I have started my PhD I can see how my skills to pick important things and then communicate has changed.

I no longer just look at the overall story and try to get the bigger picture, I am also focused on the small details and missing information and I am improving in my way of communicating scientific details not just academically but with more general curiosity. Living in a country where I am not fluent in the language, I have to collaborate with several people and communicating with them seems like the most rewarding chunk of my day.

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I am learning Italian and my colleagues help me out a lot, and in return, I help them if they need any assistance with English. Communication during PhD is not just about communicating scientific facts but also building relationships and relating to others around.

#5: Becoming more worldly

I feel very privileged to be granted a Marie Curie scholarship PhD. It is indeed my passport to travel, work, and communicate with people from all around the world.

With a few months of secondments in different countries, this program will also teach me how to survive in different places and labs and get work done efficiently within a fixed timeline. Though I have traveled extensively and lived in several countries, the opportunities I am getting now with this PhD program are invaluable, as they will shape my future professional life.

Working with European commission gives me the chance to go to different universities around Europe for short courses to long term projects. I am grateful with such opportunities and really appreciate how much I learn and how many people I get to meet while I am on the move. (Below is one of the courses I attended back in 2015 in Turku, Finland)

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I don’t want to spend 3 years in lab and then regret not making the most of my time in Italy at such a prime phase of my life.

#6: Learning that ‘work’ is a ‘part of life’ not ‘life’

I am learning that PhD is just the beginning of a long journey and I need to keep looking forward and expand my horizons. At the same time, I intend not to make it the sole priority of my life. I have heard tales of PhD students who are always stressed and have pretty much no work-life balance.

Since I had 4 years gap between Masters and PhD and I worked as a researcher in between, I am setting my own rules. It is very easy to fall into the trap of making our work everything. But I feel it is a very unhealthy attitude. I have several other things that I am passionate about like traveling, writing and dancing, so I make it a point to fit all these activities in my life without affecting my research.

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I try to travel once a month around the beautiful country of Italy. After living in different countries I know that our time every where is limited, and we often don’t get the chance to go and relive those moments, that’s why I don’t want to spend 3 years in lab and then regret not making the most of my time in Italy at such a prime phase of my life.

Work is always going to be never-ending, it really depends on us how well we compartmentalize and create healthy boundaries to live mindfully and not let one aspect of our lives take over everything else.

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