Three skills I’m glad I had before starting a PhD

When I was in primary school, I wanted to be an actor and a lawyer – I held some unusual vision that I would be both of these things in some kind of Zoolander slashie division of the industry. In hindsight, I think it’s just that I only understood the job of a lawyer through what I saw on television. Maybe I thought all lawyers were actors(?). That might need some unpacking…

The obsession with television was perhaps more important. As a queer kid in a conservative regional town, television was a window to a world beyond what I knew. And maybe that’s why I wanted to be an actor, because I saw these people playing out lives I wanted to be part of.

When it came time to decide what I wanted to do with my future, I didn’t have the passion for law my six-year-old self may have hoped for, nor the talent or drive to be an actor. However, that obsession with television remained.

Everyone has their own journey to success and their own vision of what success will look like. For me, it was more circuitous than many of my peers. There was a moment in my bachelors degree where I was researching the influence that television has on culture for an essay and just wanting to know more – I thought I could make a career of this, somehow. I didn’t have the institutional or social capital to even begin to navigate what that would look like. And so, the idea sat in the back of my mind.

Here’s the thing, I know plenty of people that completed their bachelors, honours and then went straight into a PhD, and thrived. But I’m not that person, and I think it’s okay to talk about that.

The best thing I did was spend more than 10 years in the workforce before starting a PhD

My bachelor and master degrees were earned while working full-time, and then I spent my subsequent career working on everything from internal culture change communications to major advertising campaigns.

The subject-matter of my work matters less than the lessons I learned along the way.

Here are three skills I’m pleased I developed before I started my PhD.

1. Project management

It might seem obvious, but a three-year PhD research project requires project management skills. I mean, most jobs require project management skills.

Do you do the roster at work to ensure there are enough people on to cover the work required? Have you volunteered to organise a fundraising morning tea? It’s all project management.

Get familiar with what works for you for planning and allocating tasks. I like GANTT charts because I like being able to visually see how different tasks relate to each other and when I will have a lot of things coming together at the same time.

2. Managing up

This is possibly a loaded term, and some managers don’t like it because they see it as a slight on their management skills. For me ‘managing up’ means caring about your manager or the decision-maker and making their job easy. It is an approach I try to take with my supervisors.

‘Managing up’ is anticipating the questions, a decision-maker might have and thinking about how they work. There are some simple ways to do this:

  • Wherever possible (and make this the rule with clear reasons for exceptions) agree ahead of time on what you need from a manager and when – good project management is about having a plan and executing it.
  • Proactively communicate delays to expected timelines.
  • Email subjects should tell a manager exactly what the email will require of them so they can organise their priorities, for example: “For action by [DATE and TIME]: review draft website content.”
  • Give managers time to do things or an explanation of why there’s no time – if every approval is urgent, it often means there a break in the system – help them see where things are falling down.
  • Provide context – seriously – seeing an email that says ‘For review’ with an attachment is infuriating. It doesn’t take much to write two-or-three dot points with the context, remind the person reviewing the document about how this is addressing a request they made – they’ve probably forgotten, because we’re all busy.

3. Writing an write an email for action

I feel like I’ll be starting something, but so many poorly written emails have crossed my desktop!

People generally don’t know how to write a clear and succinct email for action. If you’re approaching someone to participate in an interview in your research, the instinct is to start with a long explanation of why it’s important.

And then we minimise our requests: ‘I’m just hoping you could’, ‘If it’s not too much bother’, ‘I’m just following up’!

Delete ‘just’ from your email vocabulary, now!

Here’s a quick template on how to write an effective email for action

Subject[For action/information/approval] by [date and time]: [Subject] OR [Invitation to participate]: [Interview topic]
OpeningDear [Name],

Clearly and directly explain the purpose of the email in one short sentence, if they stop reading here, they need to be able to know exactly what you want. – even if the answer is ‘no’.
ContextExplain the background in a few sentences, anticipate questions the receiver may have.

Use dot points if required.
What happens next?What are the next steps? Again a few short sentences.
Contact details and sign-offProvide contact details for any questions and a polite sign-off.

I realise these will be seen as pretty obvious to some, but not to everyone.

As I’ve chatted to students and friends who are interested in a career in academia, these are the skills that often aren’t priorities. But they are skills that will make your PhD journey a little smoother.

By Damien J O'Meara

Damien J O'Meara is an academic, communications strategist and professional writer. He is currently completing a PhD in LGBTIQ+ representation on Australian screen at Swinburne University of Technology

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