On the Record

We've all done it. Sat down with a blank sheet of paper to compose a CV. Or tried to fill in a job application knowing that there have been loads of occasions when we've demonstrated leadership ability, it's just that none of them are springing to mind right now. It's at times like these that you realise that it would be a really good idea to keep a note of your achievements and newly acquired skills as you go through life. The trouble is, how many of us actually remember to do anything as sensible and structured as that until it's job-application crunch time?

Three cheers, then, for the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), which has developed the Postgraduate Skills Record (PSR) to help PhD students keep track of their milestones. It comes in the form of three booklets, one for each year of the PhD, which the RSC have been distributing to students in chemistry departments across the UK and Ireland since April 2000. (If you're not in a chemistry department, don't worry--you can download the PSR free from the RSC Web site.) The idea is for students to sit down once a year and carry out a skills audit. Divided into sections with titles like Handling Information, Planning and Organisation, and Working with Others, the audit statements against which you need to judge yourself are entirely generic, so whether you're a particle physicist or an ecologist, the PSR can work for you.

Joanne Ladds, a second-year PhD student at York University, is so enthusiastic about the PSR that she is one of a small group of postgrads who have been running workshops that introduce it to incoming PhD students at York. Developing "transferable skills is a really, really important thing," she points out, but most people realise it only when they have to try to get a job. "When I finish my PhD, I'm going to have to write a new CV," she says, "and all I'll have to do is look at these books."

But isn't it just one more thing to fit into a hectic 3 years of research? "It takes 10 to 15 minutes to catalogue what you've done," says Ladds, who tries to fill in an entire booklet at one sitting. "You need to just read it and do it," she suggests, claiming that "if you think too hard, you get the wrong answer." The thinking part comes later, when you expand on your answers, providing the evidence for your current attainments and deciding what actions you need to take to improve areas of weakness. As a result of the using the PSR, Ladds has set herself a number of goals, such as reading at least two research papers a week and starting to write the materials and methods section of her thesis as she goes along. "It helps you realise what you want from your PhD," she says, pointing out that "there are other people who are stuck in a chemistry lab and that's all they do. They're not thinking 3 years ahead."

So when the day comes to get a job, will it really help? According to Kristy MacDonald, development officer in the Professional Education section at the RSC, employers are really keen to see students demonstrating self-assessment. Companies such as Pfizer, BASF, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, and Pilkington Technology have all backed the scheme, she says. And Ladds says that the PSR is merely a precursor to an ongoing process of personal development that all employees are expected to continue in industry. She cites Unilever, Norwich Union, and PricewaterhouseCoopers as examples of very different companies that all operate similar self-assessment schemes.

The PSR grew out of a series of workshops the RSC held in 1995 to look at the future of chemistry in the UK. The RSC's conclusion? "Communication, team-working capabilities, problem solving, and organisation are becoming increasingly important in order to succeed in the rapidly changing and increasingly competitive world of industry." At about the same time, the Dearing Inquiry Into Higher Education recommended that "those leaving higher education need to understand how to learn and how to manage their own learning, recognising the process continues throughout life." Although there was "a reasonable amount of work" aimed at helping undergraduates to develop and recognise their skills, there was "an obvious gap in terms of postgraduates," says MacDonald.

With over 4500 PSRs distributed to date, that gap is clearly being closed. And the reception from supervisors has generally been positive--perhaps because they don't have to do anything beyond hand out the documents. "It was designed in such a way that it is not a detriment to the student if the supervisor doesn't want to get involved," explains MacDonald. And Ladds confirms that "personally I felt it was a booklet for myself." Meanwhile, MacDonald describes the PSR as "a living document," one that is currently being redesigned following feedback received from users. If that feedback is to be believed, it appears that a small investment of time during your PhD could result in significant time savings--and perhaps greater success--when it comes to searching for your first post-PhD job.

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