The five uber-skills of Academia

December 14, 2006

In evolutionary ecology, one of the first lessons learned, and relearned, is the difference between ultimate and proximate, strategic and tactical. An individual organism’s ultimate goal, its strategy, is to leave more viable offspring than other members of its population. The proximate means, or tactics, to that end are as varied and marvelous as the diversity of life.

As you enter grad school, and as you find yourself at little watersheds (the beginning of holiday break with the new year fast approaching) it is a useful to ask yourself, the big, ultimate, strategic questions. It is only after you lay out a set of life goals that you can realistically assess the resources at your disposal, and your constraints, and start figuring out ways to get’er done. Graduate school, as Steven Stearns notes, is as much as anything a psychological battle. Nothing soothes anxiety like having a decent idea as to where you want to go. Finally, the tools, philosophical and otherwise, differ rather significantly between strategic planning (think Seven Habits ) and tactical implementation (think GTD). We will spend a fair bit of time over the coming months considering both.

So what are the goals of a graduate student in the sciences?

Yes. OK. “Get a job”. Thanks for that. But let’s plumb a little deeper into the strategic-tactical continuum, shall we?

Graduate school in the sciences is about acquiring a skill set. These uber skills all need to be learned, practiced, and polished. The continual honing of these skills is a big part of the academic scientist’s work week. They are,

1) Being creative. Creativity is not just about generating a lot of ideas. Its about having the judgement to know which of them are any good.

2) Mastering a body of work. By the time you graduate, by the time you take your oral exams, you should be a leading authority on something.

3) Remaining aware of the rest. A Ph. D. is a well-rounded individual who keeps up on the big questions in other fields. At the very least, you should be able to teach an up-to-date Introductory course (and I don’t mean, Introduction to Ant Sociometry, I mean Introduction to Biology).

4) Communicating well. You can’t convey your discoveries, or those of the scientific community, unless you can write well and speak well and tailor your message to your audience. Teaching and writing a scientific paper are the same thing.

5) Mastering your time. How do you squeeze all this in and still lead a life that is not dictated only by work? This is where the tactics comes in.

So stay tuned. We have a lot to cover. This is gonna be fun.