Learning new skills

A PhD isn’t just about research, it’s also about learning new skills.

But despite a lifetime of education, many PhD students don’t know how to learn!

You may know how to retain information presented to you and then reproduce it in an exam (because this is how the education system is structured), but when you have to learn a skill it takes a different approach.

Skill vs method

There is a difference between a skill and a method. A method has predefined steps which you can just follow one after the other, and is the same every time. If anything unexpected happens, the method no longer works.

Skill, on the other hand, is adaptive. When you are skilful, your method will adapt in response to the unexpected because you have an intuitive understanding of the techniques you are using, gained through experience.

You cannot learn skill from a book or a blog. You can only learn it through practice.

Hard work is no substitute for skill

There is a lot of pressure on PhD students to work hard and produce good results.

But if you haven’t developed a high level of skill yet, then the results won’t be great. The trap that many students then fall into is simply trying to work harder, rather than developing the right skills.

This leads to nothing but frustration!

Take the pressure off

It is much harder to learn new skills when you are under pressure to produce results.

If you focus too much on the end result or impressing your supervisor then you will be afraid to make mistakes, which means you will never take the risk of trying anything new and will never be able to improve.

So take the pressure off and just try things out. The more mistakes you make, the better!


Whatever research technique you are using, try to make it work at the simplest possible level first.

So for example if you plan to conduct interviews of 100 people, first just try finding one person and asking them 3 quick questions (you can always interview them fully later).

Repeat and modify

The more often you practice something, the more you reinforce the skill. But in order to improve, you need to make slight adjustments to the way you do it.

These adjustments may be better, or they may be worse. You can’t always know until you try, and so mistakes are in inevitable and necessary part of the process.

Once you find a way that works at a simple level, you can increase the complexity or difficulty of the problem so you are pushing beyond your current limit

Planning research

Many PhD students spend a long time planning their research, writing a proposal and waiting for approval of the project. Then when the research actually starts, they don’t have the practical experience to carry it out well.

If the very first experiment or interview you conduct has to count towards the final results, there is a huge amount of pressure to get it right. If the first time you analyze data is a few months before your submission deadline, then you are going to be hugely stressed.

When planning research, try to anticipate what skills you are going to need, and get practicing.


  1. Cris says

    I found this blog post interesting but vague. What kind of skills do you suggest help a PhD student? Or maybe provide examples of how a particular skill can be broken and learned via a trial and error method? Thanks for sharing.

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