Grad students should hone strategic thinking skills (opinion)

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As a graduate student, you develop distinct skills, knowledge and connections throughout your research program that set you apart as a highly skilled professional. As you develop those skills, you become more marketable and valuable to employers and the workforce. However, many graduate students have told me that, even with such practical skills, they still struggle to find employment.

As we move into the post-pandemic world, organizations are going to look for candidates with complex sets of both technical and transferable skills. One such skill that is universally valued is strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking is often defined as the ability to see the big picture, plan ahead and be action-oriented in achieving one’s own or an organization’s goals. It is showcased through curiosity and connecting the dots across different domains while, at the same time anticipating and mitigating challenges to crafting a path forward in achieving goals. This highly sought-after skill is valued across many sectors and employers. As a graduate student, you can find many opportunities to think strategically and hone this skill throughout your training. Recognizing and capitalizing on those opportunities will allow you to elevate your value as you enter the workforce.

Developing Strategic Thinking Skills

Graduate training across many different disciplinary areas provides students opportunities to dive deep into specific topics and gain significant knowledge and expertise. But that knowledge-gaining process alone will not provide you with the necessary strategic thinking space and capacity. To actively cultivate strategic thinking, you should focus on the big picture, taking action and calculating risks to support long-term goals.

As a graduate student, the first opportunity to practice and develop such skills presents itself as you consider your research projects and next steps. How are you thinking about your long-term goals as you plan your projects for graduate school? Are those goals focused on immediate outcomes, or are they connected to future processes? Can you clearly articulate how today’s actions will impact your future in three, five or 10 years? The answers to those questions can provide the insight needed to further develop your strategic thinking skills. Below are some examples of how you can improve your capabilities as a strategic thinker.

  • When planning your projects and activities, think about the outcomes you want to achieve. Take time to move away from your regular tasks and routines to self-reflect. As you reflect on your project outcomes and consider future next steps, you are exercising your strategic thinking muscles.
  • Time is one of the most precious resources we have. If you find yourself too busy to think about the future, it is a clear sign that you are not as strategic as you could be. For example, if you are doing repetitive tasks in the lab even after you have developed the necessary skills, maybe look at the resources that would allow you to delegate tasks. Perhaps you can identify an opportunity to hire undergrad students who could help you with the routine work that will free your time for more thoughtful and longer-term planning.
  • Prioritization is a critical skill that many of us struggle with when overwhelmed by our workloads. Knowing what is essential and what is not important is vital, as that connects to our longer-term goals. Choose carefully where you invest your time. If such tasks and activities add value to your longer-term goals, then you can choose to prioritize them. As author Karen Maten says in her book The Outstanding Organization: Generate Business Results by Eliminating Chaos and Building the Foundation for Everyday Excellence, “If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.”

Demonstrating Strategic Thinking

As you develop your strategic thinking skills, it is equally important to demonstrate those skills in your daily engagements. Engagement requires you to bring your ideas and thoughts forward to challenge your own and other people’s thinking and proactively communicate such efforts with those in positions of influence. This positioning is essential in developing confidence and trust among others in authority that you are capable of contributing to work, the enterprise or the organization in a positive and strategic way in achieving goals.

If you are part of a team of researchers, make sure you actively contribute to discussions and dialogue. Sharing your thoughts and ideas is an essential building block in this process. Many graduate students stay silent due to the fear of criticism. If we can reframe fear as an opportunity to practice this valuable skill, it may be easier to put forth yourself and your ideas.

Strategic thinkers challenge their assumptions and look at challenges from several perspectives before deciding on the best path forward. If you are working on projects with multiple team members, you can ask good questions that will demonstrate to the group that you are engaging in thinking strategically. One great way to do this is with Edward De Bono’s classic six thinking hats methods:

  1. White Hat: With this thinking hat, you focus on what you can learn from the available data as well as current and past trends.
  2. Red Hat: You look at problems through the lens of feelings (yours and others), using your intuition and emotion.
  3. Black Hat: This is the hat of caution. Look for weak points and think about how to create contingency plans to counter them.
  4. Yellow Hat: This hat helps you look at the bright side. What is the most optimistic viewpoint?
  5. Green Hat: When you are creative and lean into freewheeling, out-of-the-box ideas, you are using the Green Hat.
  6. Blue Hat: This hat represents processes and prompts you to bring order and structure to your thoughts.

Another way to go about showcasing your skills is to initiate innovative change. There are many tried and tested methods of operating in academe, but have you identified opportunities to improve our processes and systems for the better? Would taking an innovative approach and lens improve a current circumstance? You can bring about meaningful change in many great ways. It could be as simple as improving a process that helps your teammates participate in campus committees and groups of strategic importance to the institution.

In short, graduate education is full of opportunities for developing strategic thinking skills that you can leverage when looking for your next move. You could identify and pursue those opportunities in the space of your career or the next step in achieving your other future goals.

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