The PhD student: Jack of all trades or master of one?

As well as gaining specialist expertise, PhD students learn a broad range of skills, explains Laura James

The Biologist 66(2) p6

At some point we have probably all heard the warning about being a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. It’s a colloquial caution against having your hand in too many pots, dabbling in everything at the expense of gaining real expertise in one particular area. It’s a sentiment that strikes fear into my heart as a PhD student, where the inherent aim is to become an expert in a specific topic.

Unexpectedly, I not long ago discovered the complete quote is in fact ‘A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one’. It is actually about the advantage of being a generalist – the exact opposite of the sentiment for which it is now used.

The more I research post-PhD career paths, the more I realise the vast breadth of skills required to work both in and outside academia. How then do we reconcile our goals as PhD students to become specialised, gaining highly specific knowledge in our subject, while also building skills in a whole range of areas to make our work applicable to wider-world issues and answer larger questions? Some days it seems like I don’t have time to sleep or eat, let alone learn to be a project manager, budget planner or ‘effective communicator’.

I recently embarked on a three-month internship at the Natural Sciences unit at the UNESCO office in Bangkok, Thailand. The internship is part of my Doctoral Training Programme, a stipulation of which is that the work can have no relation to my PhD research. When I first read this I was astounded – I must take three months out of my PhD to do something completely unrelated? How would this help me to be a specialist in my area? How would it help me to get my PhD?

One month into my internship I have already helped write a large funding proposal for the EU Commission, helped organise an editorial meeting for international hydrology experts and been invited to help edit an academic textbook. I have been given responsibilities and opportunities that I would not have thought myself capable of one month ago.

So far I have succeeded and it is, in part, down to the skills I have learned in the first two years of my PhD. And I do not mean the subject-specific, highly specialised skills (for example, how to train a bumblebee or extract RNA).

I mean the skills that all PhD students practise every day without even realising or giving ourselves credit. Those silly mistakes you make, like using the wrong chemical or having to replant 100 seeds? You’re becoming resourceful and adaptable. Living on a PhD stipend? You’re an adept budget manager now. The hours scouring vast amounts of literature for key trends and nuggets of information? You’ve got the makings of a scientific journalist. And the meetings with supervisors from several institutions with contradictory takes on your research? You’re a negotiator and a diplomat!

In the minutiae of daily PhD life, it may seem that our tiny area of work is far too narrow to be of any use to the outside world and will not leave us with the skills necessary to get the elusive, mythical job when the PhD is over. But I have realised this is simply not the case. The balancing act that is doing a PhD gives us so many ‘invisible’ skills that can be applied to such a wide range of jobs and subject areas.

I relish the diverse ‘extra-curricular’ opportunities a PhD allows, like science communication, teaching or mentoring, but for those who agonise about what they feel are numerous distractions included in PhD training schemes, remember that you are building a skill set that will help you later in life.

So the next time you’re chided for having your hand in too many pots, remember – generalists are the new specialists, and you are more of one than you know.

Laura James AMRSB is a PhD student studying molecular entomology at Rothamsted Research as part of the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership with the University of Nottingham