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Is skills training a waste of time?
Now Playing: Is skills training a waste of time?
The skills trainer group discuss stereotypes they sometimes encounter about skills training. They argue that the PhD is about more than the thesis itself, and that research and other skills training are an important aspect of personal development. They give some examples of how skills training can assist in the completion of the thesis, and consider the wider contribution of skills training to forming social and intellectual networks during the PhD.


Ross: I think there are two great myths about getting a PhD and the first one is that it’s a thesis, whereas actually you are training as a researcher. And the second one is that anything you do that is not directly related to writing that thesis is a waste of time, or not maybe a waste of time, but it’s a distraction.

Debbie: Yeah

Ross: There is this programme you can go on, spend an afternoon ‘I can’t do that I’m already behind on my PhD’, because every PhD student is behind on their PhD, and ‘this is going to take away time from doing my thesis’, when so much of skills training, even though it might not seem to be research training or research methodology, actually helps. There is networking which is one of the ones that so many people just don’t like the idea of because ‘what’s the point? I need to write my own thesis.’ There are institutes in the UK, I know this works in Scotland, where the skills training sessions they run, they run with other universities and so by learning to network you will actually be networking with PhD students from other universities. And what they’ve often found is that people have started to make links with researchers from other universities and start to share knowledge and research and go on to actually do things with them. And so in the end this has actually put their research, which goes into their PhD, more forward and so the actual skills training themselves helps them in writing their PhD, even though they thought this was actually going to take away time from it. If people do courses on, say, time management, you know, which a lot of people roll their eyes at, it is much better to be doing that in year one of your PhD rather than discovering it in year three when you know you’ve wasted hours and hours and hours. And so I think the idea of sort of skills training being here and PhD training being there, that’s one of the myths; it is actually part of becoming a researcher and it will all help.

Cindy: I think the social aspects are important and although it is very easy to dismiss them it does seem to me… I remember the first week of doing the MA, thinking ‘where have all my friends gone’ because I was at the same university and yet I wasn’t an undergraduate and there wasn’t the structure and there weren’t the obvious people around to drink tea with and talk with. And although it was a social loss, initially, I also came to realise it was actually an intellectual loss as well as I moved onto the PhD; that it could be at times a very lonely experience. And I do find that very often, certainly when we had the more rigorous structured training with social science, frequently students are coming in and saying they had to spend, in their first year, all of Thursday and Friday morning doing skills training of one sort of another. And initially they are horrified to think that ‘it’s a day and a half, I haven’t got time.’ Not helped of course by supervisors who have said ‘come to Reading, there is a bit of training but don’t worry about it’ because they really want to have time with the supervisee. And so they often find it quite difficult, but actually it is that social networking to start with. We run a couple of conferences jointly for social sciences and arts and humanities a couple of times a year and I have always been interested that the sense of occasion around that, with the poster presentation or they come and give a paper, it seems to bring people together very well. And so I think the example I think of - different universities working together - it also works I think quite well with different disciplines coming together for occasions like that. And they do automatically network and you find friendships are formed and intellectual friendships are formed which I think is very often lacking from our model of the sole researcher just producing a thesis at the end of it.

Debbie: I think there is quite a deep irony about this antipathy to networking, because one of the other major stereotypes about the field of arts and humanities is that it’s not what you know it’s who you know and that the only way you can ever get an academic job is if your supervisor tips the wink to your external examiner who tips the wink to the employer, you know. Sometimes I wonder if the antipathy is not to networking but to the idea that you explicitly network because it is good to maintain a feeling in yourself, if you are going to maintain your enthusiasm for academia, you know you need to feel like it is a sort of selfless act in a way or that you know it is a pure pursuit. And so say, well, obviously if you know people you can build up research and you will be able to find out, you will just have more information and you will learn more about the field and you will learn more about what everyone else is going this is just useful to you. But also these people will be your friends, they will stimulate you intellectually, as you were saying, which I think is a really important thing. But it is just the idea of making it explicit that these people simultaneously support and useful and you can be the same to them and making that explicit is where this resistance comes from.