500 Words, Teaching Stories

Unusual and unexpected routes to academic skills development

Crowdsourcing ideas from large groups of people is a proven technique for encountering new perspectives and generating innovation. Informally, this happens frequently through popular social media accounts. In early October this year, the Academic Encouragement Twitter account (@CouragePhD) posted this question: Out of curiosity, what’s the most non-academic skill that has helped you in academia? 

PhD researchers and senior academics from across the world responded with enthusiasm, sharing insights from a variety of subject areas and career trajectories. Here I highlight some of the most unexpected, useful and frequent responses. The thread of comments offers up new ways to perceive skills and how our personal and professional lives interrelate. 

Touch-typing and multi-tasking were amongst the most frequent skills mentioned. Several contributors referred to the usefulness of Excel skills, management (time, projects, budgets) skills, navigating bureaucracies and multiple stakeholders, and scheduling. Most contributors, however, looked at interpersonal and confidence-building opportunities. They highlighted the importance of kindness, empathy and making friends. From remembering names to being able to make anyone feel comfortable, connecting with others emotionally and managing relationships were a means of problem solving and collaborating. 

The performing arts were a major source of skills building. Drama, dance, improvised comedy, DJing, belly dancing, singing and playing music all offered the means to build personal confidence – for public speaking, engaging with large groups, and dealing with rowdy groups. One contributor used script writing skills to design their entire curriculum. Others highlighted the usefulness for story telling both as a teaching technique and for their research grant proposals. Similarly, cold calling, bartending and retail jobs developed performance and resilience skills, especially when dealing with difficult people. This sense of endurance-building was echoed in other comments noting how they drew on working class grit, farming work ethic, and the experience of parenting teenagers. Many contributors stated how confidence building in such venues helped them to battle imposter syndrome, and positively recommended a fake it ‘til you make it attitude. 

Sporting activities were a huge category discussed in the comments. Swimming, martial arts, fishing, squash, running and sports coaching taught contributors the value of patience, how to survive group projects, and also served as stress relief. One comment highlighted how watching the soaring curves of his frisbee air-bending helped him to resolve coding issues. Board games, notably Dungeons & Dragons, offered a broad range of skills building opportunities from acting as a team leader to managing unruly groups and handling wild ideas. One contributor even used Dungeons & Dragons as a template for designing their policy simulation class. 

Artistic expression across multiple media was important to several commenters. One noted how their side interest in photography ended up being essential to their research fieldwork. Another shared how silversmithing taught them fine motor skills used in neuroscience. Some academics stated that makeup and nail art helped them to focus and control their hands, skills applied to electronics and embryonic brain dissections. 

The diversity of responses also included multilingualism, napping (a skill developed while in the army), and how contributing to a student newspaper furthered their academic writing abilities. A few commenters noted how they drew strength and developed skills from their experience of living with disabilities, some gaining confidence from working in advocacy, another noting that their ADHD helped them to multi-task. 

One thing that this thread teaches us is to articulate the value of extra-curricular activities. Time and time again, academics stated that fun, sociable, sporting and creative activities directly contributed to success in their academic jobs. When so many students sacrifice their personal time to their studies, sometimes to excess, this perspective can offer them a way to place long term value on their passions and interests. In this way, we can encourage students to embrace finding joy in life, relaxing with friends, and positively contribute to their mental and physical wellbeing.  

What are your unusual or unexpected skills you use in academia? Have you taken any unusual routes into the sector? Please share below in the Comments section.

1 thought on “Unusual and unexpected routes to academic skills development”

  1. I think lots of people who get academic jobs don’t really have an appreciation of what it’s going to be like. It’s a bit like thinking that just because you’ve flown on a plane you are somehow qualified to pilot it. The thing for me that really helped as being a lecturer was humour. Talented comedians are really good at holding a room, owning the space, engaging with the audience and, of course, being the most interesting person in the room. Lots of the skills they have you can use and bring to your lecture ‘performance’ without even telling a joke. I’ve watched others over the years and several times thought – that’s really powerful, I can use that in lectures (Norton and Izzard are my favourites). It’s certainly given me increased confidence – so much so that I did public stand-up. Who knew when I applied to be a lecturer how useful it would be?

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