Leave a comment

Professional skills for my PhD

Since starting my PhD last month, I have been very conscious of myself as a mature PhD student. I know there is nothing unusual in this: I have met many PhD students at Huddersfield pursuing a research degree later in life, and in fact my own grandpa started his PhD aged 60! So at 37, I don’t think I’m “too old” to be doing this. But it has made me think about the advantages and disadvantages to pursuing a PhD at this stage of my life and career.

Firstly, the disadvantages: I have been out of formal education for a long time. I completed my undergraduate degree in 2005, and my Masters in 2009. Since then, I have also achieved a PG Certificate in Higher Education, but that was a few years ago (completed in 2018). So it is fair to say that my academic skills are a little rusty!

Obviously in the meantime I have been employed in HE, and I try to keep an eye on the academic literature (via attendance at conferences like LILAC, reading interesting things I see on Twitter or on JiscMail mailing lists, and keeping reasonably on top of journals like JIL). So I’m not quite so far removed from academic research as I would have been if I’d still been working in corporate or special libraries and hadn’t had such good online professional networks. But there is having a general interest in research, and keeping up with odd bits and bobs when I have time, and then there is actually immersing myself in the field and really grappling with complex ideas. Those are mental muscles I haven’t stretched in a while, and I can tell!

That leads me on to one of the major the advantages though: my well-developed professional skills. As a librarian, I am extremely experienced in finding and managing information: searching specialist databases, keeping track of my research materials, and keeping up to date with new information. I teach PhD students how to do this as part of my job, so it’s something I know how to do for myself pretty well! I already have keyword and citation alerts set up for the various topics I am interested in, and my EndNote library is, frankly, immaculate.

Getting started with my own research has brought home to me just what an advantage these skills give me. Thinking back to the classes and one-to-one appointments I have had with PhD students, it strikes me just how much there is to learn at the start of a PhD. There is so much new conceptual information to take in, how much harder must it be if you are also trying to learn how to use reference management software, or search a database you have never used before, or even just understand the scholarly information landscape if these concepts are new to you?

As well as my information skills, I also have a range of professional skills I can draw from. As I started my PhD, I completed a Training Needs Assessment (TNA), which was mapped against the Vitae Research Development Framework (RDF). If I was coming to the PhD directly from my undergraduate and then Masters degrees, there are lots of areas I would have had little or no experience of. As I have more than a decade of professional experience under my belt however, there were lots of areas (such as time management, communication and collaboration, and career development) for which I had plenty I could talk about and point to as evidence for my existing skills.

Finally, I am also a reflective practitioner. Although this blog has been neglected for a few years, I have kept up reflective practice in other ways, e.g. my writing a reflective diary after each teaching session. Reflection has been central to my practice for a long time, and I think it will be really beneficial to my development as a researcher.

I have found it useful to consult the RDF “Getting started in research” lens, which is aimed at those starting out in doctoral research, to identify what skills are most relevant to focus on at the start. There are some areas within this which I feel I am already well-versed in, but others which I will need to focus on developing in the coming months. A short reflection on each development need is below.

Subject knowledge: This is a big one! My Masters in Library and Information Studies was more than ten years ago, and although I have kept my knowledge up to date as a practitioner, my grasp of the theoretical frameworks and their developments is pretty rusty. I used the time before I started my PhD to start reading up on some of the foundational works in my field, something I am continuing to do now. This is aided by my skills in information seeking, another of the RDF priorities in the “getting started” lens, but one which I can confidently say I’ve got down!

Critical thinking and problem solving: This is something I already highlighted in my TNA as a development need. Although I do have critical thinking and problem solving skills from my professional experience, and of course I did successfully complete a Masters so must have demonstrated these skills at that time, I don’t have a lot of experience of applying these skills in a research setting.

Project planning and delivery: I have done a fair amount of small-scale project planning in my day job, but never anything of the scale of a PhD, and I’ve never trained in any formal project management techniques. I don’t know whether that level of training is something I need to seek or not, but I am interested in learning more about managing long-term projects, to see if there are any techniques I can usefully apply.

Research ethics & integrity: I’d like to think I am a fairly ethical person! But the area of research ethics is something I’ve engaged with only briefly, as a Masters student and more recently in conducting small-scale UX projects in my day job. I’ve been reading through the research ethics policies and training materials available from the University of Sheffield and there are certainly issues I’ve never considered before. There is a compulsory training session on this coming up in May, I’m sure I’ll have further reflections on that soon!

Overall, although I’ve certainly got a lot to learn, I think I have a pretty good base to start from. I also think my development as a researcher will benefit my professional practice – part of the reason I am doing my PhD part-time whilst still in my day job as a subject librarian is I see the two roles as very much informing each other.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: