The secret (superhuman) skills of a PhD student


Eleanor Roosevelt famously compared women to tea bags, claiming you can’t tell how strong they are until you put them in hot water. I think perhaps something similar can be said for PhD students: you can’t tell the skills they’ve got until you stick them in a non-PhD related situation. My recent fellowship at POST was a prime example of one of these situations and, whilst there, I drew on skills I hadn’t realised I had. On reflection, I think they are skills that many of you have, though you might not have realised it. So in this post I’m going to list five of these desirable, transferable skills, which you could proudly put on your CV! I’m drawing comparisons with superhero powers because, well, because why wouldn’t you?

SUPERMAN’s x-ray vision

Like Superman, you don’t just look at the surface of things but beyond; you question and scrutinise and examine from every angle, trying to get right to the core of it.

In other words, you have excellent skills of analysis.

Prove it to yourself: try explaining some of your doctoral analysis to someone who’s not in your field. DON’T hold back on the jargon, the theory, the analysis, etc. Watch them get lost. Yes, you can scrutinise and pick things apart to the nth degree.

ROGUE’s powers of absorption

Like the Marvel hero, Rogue, you have an amazing ability to absorb (information) and, actually, like a supercomputer, you process vast amounts of data.

In other words, you can efficiently process and synthesise large amounts of information.

Prove it to yourself: this is an easy one: look at your working bibliography, your footnotes, your PhD notebooks, your folders and files. Now reflect on the fact that you have processed and are synthesising all of that. And that’s not to mention all of the sources you processed and filtered out.

BEAST’s flexibility

Like Beast, one of the founding members of the X-men, you are super flexible.

In other words, you are brilliant at adapting to different environments and situations.

Prove it to yourself: imagine a job where someone does the same thing in the same place day in, day out, day in, day out. Now think about your timetable. Chances are you work in more than one place (office, research centre, library, lab, home, coffee shop…); you can be working on a chapter, a paper, and something for your supervisor all at the same time; and you have to fit around your supervisors/ the interlibrary loans team/ teaching. That’s adaptation.

CATWOMAN’s toolkit

Like catwoman, you’ve got lots of tools in your toolkit when it comes to tackling something; you can approach things in more than one way.

In other words, you are a lateral thinker.

Prove it to yourself: think about all those times your supervisor asked you to try thinking about your research in a different way, then you went away and did it. Alternatively, think about those moments where you’ve come across something a bit left field, or from another discipline, and thought to yourself “oh! This could apply to my research in this way…” See?

FORGE’s ingenuity

Like the Marvel mutant, you have super intelligence.

In other words, you are an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable person, with a unique perspective on the world.

Prove it to yourself: obviously you’re intelligent, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing a PhD. But more than that, think about what you’ve been doing of late. You’ve been filling your mind for the past X number of years with information – some of which is in your thesis, lots of which is not. You are therefore richly and uniquely knowledgeable. Though you might not be using it right now, it’s all there in your brain. If you’re bored some time, try thinking about all the things you’ve processed and learnt since commencing your PhD. I’m betting it’s a long list or a big spider diagram that you don’t manage to finish.


Thinking about superheroes, I was reminded of something Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker (Spiderman). I’ve not fully thought through what it means to me yet, but I reckon it’s worth mulling over. In a society that often equates knowledge with power, this is what Uncle Ben says:

“With great power comes great responsibility”


(Yes, I did make a potato stamp for the occasion, and yes it was fun. Have a go!)


3 thoughts on “The secret (superhuman) skills of a PhD student

  1. Pingback: Thirteen top tips for new PhDers (from sixteen old PhDers) | newbroguesandblisters

  2. Pingback: Seven super useful professional skills a PhD gives you | newbroguesandblisters

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