PhD students often want to use their time efficiently for research-related activities, such as lab/computer work and writing articles. The requirement to take professional development courses as part of their doctoral program may seem like a waste of time. ‘Au contraire!’, says Isabelle Kohler, who discusses why professional development courses not only enhance the doctoral journey but also the next steps in their career. She also offers tips on which courses to take and when.

As a PhD student, you might think that every waking hour should be dedicated to research, lab or computer work, and writing articles. But what if I told you that investing some of this precious time in professional development could not only enhance your PhD journey but also significantly boost your future career prospects?

Many Dutch institutes require PhD candidates to earn a certain number of credits in professional development courses. For instance, VU Amsterdam stipulates 30 EC (European credits) in their Training and Supervising Plan, equivalent to 840 hours of study.

Spending 840 hours on studying instead of doing research sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? You might worry that it will distract you from your research progress or delay your thesis completion. So, why would you invest so much time in professional development?

These courses offer invaluable opportunities to broaden your skill set and prepare for your future career, whether in academia, industry, or elsewhere. For instance, industry highly values skills in project and time management, while academic and grant writing skills are highly beneficial for an academic career. Additionally, these courses are usually funded by the research group, department or faculty, offering a chance to gain knowledge without paying a dime – a great opportunity!

The most impactful course I took during my PhD was on project management. It opened up a new world of efficient and structured management of projects (and my life in general). I found it so valuable that I followed a second course on the topic.

Here are some courses I highly recommend for PhD students:

  • Project management: learn to plan, execute, and oversee projects effectively, with concepts like Gantt chart, work packages, and milestones.
  • Time management: develop strategies to manage your time and increase productivity, essential during a PhD.
  • Academic writing: improve your writing skills for publishing in academic journals.
  • Grant writing: acquire the skills to write compelling grant proposals, particularly useful for an academic career.
  • Data analysis: learn to analyze and present data, with courses on statistical software (like SPSS, R) and data visualization tools.
  • Communication: enhance your ability to communicate your research to diverse audiences, useful for presenting your work at conferences and for those interested in a career in science communication after their PhD.
  • Career development: prepare for your next career steps with courses on CV writing, job applications, and interview skills.
  • Teaching and supervision: for those interested in teaching or a career in academia, learning effective teaching and supervising techniques is invaluable.

I recommend taking most of these courses during the first two years of your PhD. This strategy allows you to benefit from these skills throughout your doctoral journey and takes advantage of the typically less intense early years of PhD study.

Professional development courses should not be seen as a diversion from your PhD or time lost instead of doing research; they are an integral part of it. They provide you with a toolkit that enhances your current research and prepares you for future opportunities. Being a researcher or scientist means mastering skills beyond research!



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