How to integrate professional development into your PhD

By Ruth Nottingham, BBSRC/NERC Doctoral Training Programme Manager, University of Nottingham, UK

ruth-nottinghamProfessional development is probably the last thing on your mind when you are a busy PhD student juggling multiple experiments, but taking the time to reflect on your skill set and how to enhance it can pay off enormously in the long run.

What do I mean by Professional Development?

Professional development can cover a wide range of activities and is basically any activity that enhances your skills, knowledge, or experience in a particular area. In a university environment there are often many courses on offer by the graduate school or your doctoral training programme to help you develop your skills. However, professional development is not just about attending formal training. For example, attending a conference and networking also counts.

The key to successful professional development is that it is driven by you. It encourages you to reflect on your current performance and where you would like your career to head, then to set yourself development goals and objectives and work towards these.

RN 1Work towards your goals!

Professional development resources

A commonly used professional development plan for researchers is the Researcher Development Framework planner developed by Vitae. This is a very comprehensive overview of the areas you should be developing your skills in to pursue a career as a research scientist. However, many aspects such as team work and communication are relevant to pretty much all career choices.

Tips on how to integrate professional development into your life as a PhD student:

  • Check out the formal training available to you: First, check the courses on offer by your University’s graduate school or doctoral training programme or sign up to their mailing list. Then look at the courses different Learned Society’s offer and if the training you want isn’t available then email them with a suggestion.
  • Use everyday situations to develop your skills: For example, want to become better at presenting? Offer to do the next presentation at your lab meeting. Fancy trying to improve your people skills? Offer to be mentor or supervise a student in the lab. Try and regularly challenge yourself.
  • Get into the habit of reflecting on your professional development the whole way through your PhD: It can be easy to let this slip when you are busy, but try to make time to record the professional development you have done so you have a record when you are writing future job applications. It also helps you identify what sort of training you would like to try next, allowing you to create the opportunity, or to notice it when it comes along. I would recommend making time for this once a month at the start or end of the week when you may already be reflecting on the state of your lab work. If this is too much, try and integrate it in with your annual reviews.
  • Attend more events: Be that local seminars, lunch events, workshops, or conferences. Events in general provide lots of opportunities to try out a vast range of skills and also increase the likelihood of finding out about other formal training available.
  • Don’t just focus on your weaker skills: This time can be used to continue developing in an area that interests you and that you are already strong in. Giving time to enhance this skill further can also have a positive impact on your self-esteem, which, in turn, can have a positive impact on your PhD.

The benefits of professional development

The key outcomes of continuing professional development is an enhanced CV and increased confidence. By taking the time in your PhD to develop skills across a wide range of areas you can make yourself more desirable to employers from across different sectors, ensuring the transition from your PhD into the job market is as smooth as possible.

About Me

I recently completed my PhD and now work as BBSRC/NERC Doctoral Training Programme Manager at the University of Nottingham.

You can find me on Twitter and you can also read my blog Multitasking Microbe and view my Vlog at YouTube channel: Dr Nottingham, which documents my final 12 weeks of writing my Thesis.

I also wrote for The Biochemist Blog earlier in the year on How to start writing your thesis.


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