CAREER COLUMN

My 11 part-time jobs made me a better PhD student

Waitressing, bartending and tutoring stole time from my academic studies, but I picked up transferable skills that still serve me well, says Cassie Sims.
Cassie Sims is a postdoc at the Max Planck Center for Next Generation Insect Chemical Ecology and Lund University in Sweden.

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Many empty glasses on a bar

Credit: Shutterstock

I have had 11 part-time jobs between my final year of school and completing my PhD programme. These varied in scope, pay, fun and responsibility, but most fell into in hospitality, customer service or tutoring. I have waitressed in restaurants and cafes, supervised a student bar, sold smoked meats and cheeses and tutored younger students.

I didn’t always like these jobs, but I had to earn some money while I worked on my education. And these jobs were sometimes a disadvantage to that education. Chemistry lectures at 9 a.m. are harder after cleaning student-bar toilets 6 hours earlier. When I should have been reading literature just before starting my PhD programme in chemistry at the University of Nottingham, UK, and Rothamsted Research, a UK agricultural-research institution, I was working the breakfast shift in a family hotel, serving oat-milk cappuccinos.

In 2019, a Nature survey revealed that 19% of PhD students had a part-time job, with the majority using it to help make ends meet.Although I had the privilege of having a funded PhD, I often needed extra money to cover travel expenses while waiting for reimbursement, to pay off the significant overdraft I incurred as an undergraduate and to save emergency money.

Although I think we should work towards a society where your socio-economic background does not put you at a disadvantage, having a job during my studies has not always been detrimental to my development as an academic. Despite the negatives, each of my jobs helped my personal development and provided valuable experience when transitioning to the world of scientific research in academia.

Part-time jobs offer some obvious transferable and practical skills that could have a place in scientific research: knowing how to speedily clean filthy glassware or having swift mental-maths abilities are just as useful in front of a laboratory bench as behind a bar. But more important for my development were the transferable ‘soft’ skills, the utility of which is harder to predict.

Cassie Sims working in the lab

Cassie Sims works on research in the lab.Credit: Rothamsted Research Ltd.

Clear communication

Working in customer service from a young age forces you to polish your communication skills and to step outside your comfort zone. As a waitress, you can go from calmly cracking open an expensive bottle of wine at an anniversary dinner to chasing kitchen orders within a minute. I was shy before I started working in restaurants, but then I had to speak to people. Suddenly, I was able to look others in the eye. I’m now better equipped to collaborate and communicate confidently with both colleagues and customers. Selling yourself and your research is crucial for academic success. Often, scientists are faced with explaining complex science to the general public and convincing funding bodies to grant them money to continue their research. The ability to convey the key message of your work simply and convincingly can be imperative to success. Sometimes I could even practise my science-communication skills when chatting with restaurant guests.

Patience

With those communication skills came the slow development of deep wells of patience. As anyone who has worked in the service industry knows, many customers can get frustrated and angry when they’re wrong (and they often are wrong) — but diffusing those emotions is a valuable skill. This is still the case in academia — difficult people are not found only in supermarkets — but patience is valuable in research in other ways, too. Often, for example, lab research can go very wrong, or was never right to start with. In those situations, the ability to calmly move on without getting frustrated with yourself can feel like a superpower.

Managing others

Having supervised a team of staff members in a bar, I feel comfortable delegating, taking responsibility and managing people. As a PhD student, I formally and informally supervised summer students, undergraduates and master’s-degree students in our lab. This differed from supervising students working in a bar, despite quantities of ethanol being involved in both situations. Although team work is important for research, if things went wrong in a student’s project, the project could be fixed, recovered and resolved. Students need to learn to work independently, and part of this includes making mistakes. In the bar, you need to work as a team or things will not run smoothly — you are all cogs in one big machine. However, both in my part-time jobs and in the lab, there have been times where I have had to act quickly to solve a problem, put out fires (both metaphorically and literally) and take charge of a situation.

Time management

Additionally, one of the most important skills for success in your PhD is time management. This skill is not always learnt directly from a part-time job, but by juggling your studies and work on the side you inherently build a system of scheduling, organizing and managing your hours for maximum efficiency. Being forced to navigate a tricky timetable encourages you to find creative solutions, to learn how to work on multiple things simultaneously and to make the most use of breaks. When I was working on my final lab experiments in my PhD programme, I was also working on blogposts for my digital-media job. I often found the two intertwining: the lab work inspired my writing, and researching new science for the blog inspired my lab work.

Persistence

Above all else, I think part-time jobs breed discipline, tenacity and determination. To succeed in your PhD, you need to have drive, a good work ethic and fierce discipline. These skills are difficult to learn. However, if you are waitressing in a busy restaurant on a Saturday night, there is no time for procrastination. The ability to motivate yourself is one of the most important skills for success in pursuing a PhD.

I wouldn’t recommend seeking out a part-time job during your PhD if you can afford to focus on your studies, but if you do have to work, consider the transferable skills that you might gain in the process.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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