The five uber-skills of Academia

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.


5 Responses to The five uber-skills of Academia

  1. […] built one paragraph at a time. Writing an effective paragraph is perhaps the single most important communication skill to acquire in your first years of grad school. It is a skill that the best scientists hone and one […]

  2. Ela Burse says:

    would like more information on this article

  3. […] If we want to achieve balance, we have to articulate what we are balancing. For that, see The Five Uber Skills of Academia . […]

  4. […] If we want to achieve balance, we have to articulate what we are balancing. For that, see The Five Uber Skills of Academia . […]

  5. zshi0609 says:

    Really like this post. Inspired by it, I think that excellent graduate students are leaders, managers and employees. First we have to know where you are going, even not very clear sometimes. Second we have to wisely manage our time and resources, and prioritize our tasks effectively. Last we have to walk our talk.

    It is much easier writing these than carrying them out. I almost struggled every day to walk my talk. Things are not always like we think they are. Actually they are always not what we think. Once we could not finish one or some of our planned tasks in time, things start to pile up. And we get really frustrated day by day. We are not happy any more. This is a big issue.

    People start to suggest that do not plan too many tasks each day. Well almost everything seems important. There are three papers to be discussed in a seminar, lab meeting and advance EEB very soon. To be proactive, we have to jog every morning to prevent the possibly sudden crackdown or death of overwrought, learn linear algebra for the future use soon, write term papers even though they look far away in case we would not do well under the stress of approaching deadlines, and write the grant proposal even though we have no clue what we are going to do at the first semester of our graduate study…

    And we have a wish list of reading all the great books on our book shelves. The books have been there forever and we only finished one book. We know that it would be much better if we read some of our books than some of the tasks we have to do.

    We all probably know that we will make it eventually. However, what is the quality of those tasks we finished in a hurry going to be?

    Hope we can find solutions in our Advanced EEB class.

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