How to excel in the years following your PhD

This Blog Post is provided by Nick Masca, University of Leicester PhD graduate. Nick is currently Head of Marketing Algorighms / Data Science with Marks and Spencer.

Since completing my PhD at the University of Leicester back in 2011, I’ve enjoyed tackling problems in various companies and industries, as well as during a stint in academia as a postdoc. This blog post attempts to share some of the most important learnings I’ve picked up through these experiences, which have helped some of the best people and teams I’ve worked with excel in different environments.

1. Keep learning
Despite developing deep expertise in your specialist area during a PhD as well as a breadth of research and other skills, in order to truly excel in any role in the subsequent years requires ongoing learning and development. Adopting a growth mindset ensures you don’t rest on your laurels, and that you will keep pushing yourself to improvei. You thereby become more and more effective as time goes on, and can continue to adapt as the world progresses.
2. Take ownership of outcomes, not just outputs
Taking ownership and accountability for delivering outcomes, rather than just your own individual outputs, helps drive teams toward achieving real impactii. The outcome represents the intended impact of the work – for example, improved safety, greater reliability, or reduced lead times, etc. In contrast, outputs are different ways of, or steps to, achieving a goal, but do not necessarily translate into actual progress toward it.
A focus on the outcome keeps the big picture in mind and can encourage better collaboration, helping avoid situations where someone simply ‘throws work over the fence’ once they perceive their part in a task complete. Outcomes can rarely be achieved by one person acting alone, but taking steps such as proactively seeking feedback, following up on work, and sharing responsibility for the delivery of tasks, demonstrates ownership and increases the whole team’s chances of success.
3. Practice empathy
To be successful, we need to work with many different people and personalities. Seeking to understand others’ perspectives – or practising empathy – helps us collaborate and is central to many aspects of work, including people and stakeholder management, product design and development, and even negotiationiii.

While some people may naturally be more empathetic than others, it’s empowering to view empathy as a skill that can be developed. Deliberately practicing techniques such as active listening and inquisitive questioning enables anyone to apply empathy in a given situation.

4. Have an opinion (but be prepared to change it!)

The best decisions account for diverse perspectives. Practising empathy with our co-workers or our customers helps attain diverse views, but we should also look to form and contribute our own opinions and input our own unique perspective too.

Opinions need to stand up to reality though; we should be sceptical and honest about our beliefs and assumptions, and be willing to adjust them in the face of new / better information.

5. Debate but commit to a decision, swiftly

We know that diverse perspectives lead to better decisions but, conversely, over-analysis can delay action unnecessarily. Managing this tradeoff is key to effective planning and execution of work.

I once received some feedback to help me better manage the relationship between analysis and action in my work, pointing out that “most decisions can actually be reversed”, so it’s usually more valuable to reach a decision quickly rather than embarking in endless debate or analysis hoping to arrive at the ‘perfect’ conclusion. It’s only through action that we can really test ideas and learn.

Time-boxing discussions and work can be useful techniques for ensuring we draw on different perspectives and information, without taking too long to reach a decision and act.

6. Think big but start small

Detailed upfront plans are rarely effective at tackling complex problems or realising ambitious targets. Usually, assumptions about a problem turn out to be wrong, and important learnings can only be picked up along the way. In the words of Steve Jobs: “Start small, think big. Don’t worry about too many things at once. Take a handful of simple things to begin with, and then progress to more complex ones. Think not just tomorrow, but the future.”

A technique I’ve found to be useful when tackling hard problems is to start by developing a plan to deliver a small benefit – such as a 1-5% improvement – and then go from there. You can learn a lot from applying even the simplest solutions, while delivering some value early on helps gain trust and support for the work.

Recommended Reading

i Mindset: Changing The Way You Think To Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck

ii It’s not just semantics: Managing outcomes vs outputs

iii Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz

Share this page:

Share this page:

Martin Coffey

About Martin Coffey

Postgraduate Career Development Adviser, Doctoral College Team.

View more posts by Martin Coffey

Subscribe to Martin Coffey's posts

Leave a Reply

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer