Essential skills in grad school


Guilherme D. Garcia


November 13, 2023

These are some (technical) skills worth developing as soon as you start grad school. While it’s true that some people are already familiar with these skills from their undergraduate courses, this is definitely not the rule. I’m assuming your field is linguistics, but these skills are useful no matter what you study — more importantly, they’re useful whether or not you plan to stay in academia.

Document preparation

Everyone uses Word or Google Docs. You should, of course, know how to properly use these tools. But that’s a very low bar now that you’re in grad school. On top of that, learn how to use \(\LaTeX\) (directly or indirectly)1 and your documents will look much more professional. They will also be better automated. It’s true that the learning curve can be a bit steep if you’re not used to running commands to accomplish tasks on your computer, but that experience in and of itself will help you develop some technical skills too. The ability to create functions that speed up your document preparation can save you a lot of time. You can also use Quarto or RMarkdown to generate PDFs that use \(\LaTeX\). In that case, your results will be equally good and your learning curve will be substantially attenuated.2 To be abe to fully customize documents in Quarto, you may want to learn some basic HTML and CSS too, which will definitely help with your web presence (also discussed below).

Presentation skills

Document preparation includes posters and slides. Being able to create efficient documents for your presentations can be extremely useful, as presentations are typically stressful. It’s true that each subfield will have its own culture when it comes to how you present at a conference, but there’s always a big difference between a good and a bad presentation (even if your idea is good in and of itself). People in academia tend to underestimate the importance of form, so this could give you an edge depending on your target audience. Find colleagues who are good at public speaking and ask them to tell you what aspects of your presentation should be improved. Maybe your slides have too much information and don’t highlight the key points; maybe you speak monotonically and/or too quickly; maybe the structure of your presentation is confusing; your handouts/slides are too dense, etc. When it comes to academic job prospects, some places will value teaching more than research (whether they explicitly say that is another matter). In that scenario, there’s a lot about your teaching that can be extrapolated from your presentation skills. Just bear that in mind as you go to conferences throughout your MA/PhD.

Online presence

If you have presented your research at a conference or if you have produced some manuscripts and materials, hosting them on a personal website is a great idea.3 If I can’t find your materials, I won’t read them. One thing that academics tend to underestimate is the importance of online self-promotion. People should know who you are and what you research interests are, and having a website is an easy but effective way to accomplish that. These days it’s extremely easy to create a simple and professional-looking website. Learn a bit about SEO so that people can easily find you, and create accounts on ORCID and Google Scholar; also ResearchGate and (I personally dislike these two, but think of them as “pointers” to your website; they can also improve your online presence).

As you complete your coursework in grad school, if you take any courses on data analysis and/or coding, you may want to create an account on GitHub or a similar platform. This also allows you to share code, which can be a great way to demonstrate a different type of skill. The take-home message here is simple: these technical skills will be extremely useful in academia, but they also prepare you for non-academic careers. It goes without saying that a linguist who can do some coding and who knows a bit about webdesign and document preparation is more marketable than a linguist who only knows about syntactic trees and prosodic structure.

Finally, create an account at public repositories such as OSF. You can store your manuscripts there, generate a DOI, and then use that link to make your materials available on your website. I find this combination the most efficient: OSF will boost your SEO, but you still have your own website that takes people to your manuscript on OSF.

Reference management

If you learn about document preparation, you should automatically learn about reference management. I only learned how to manage my references during my PhD (!). Believe or not, all of the references in my MA thesis were manually added to the document. Things have changed a lot, but it’s still true that many people enter grad school without having learned how to properly work with references. If you’re in a PhD program, you will deal with research, so this is a must. You don’t want to be manually copying and pasting references into MS Word. If you use \(\LaTeX\) (or Quarto), you’ll be using BibTeX. Even if you never use Word, you should also be prepared to collaborate with people who do. So it’s a good idea to learn how to use EndNote (or Zotero, Mendeley, etc.). These tools are easy to learn, and they will save you a lot of time. Besides, being able to produce high-quality reports and documents with proper references is an important skill whether or not you’ll stay in academia, as many careers rely on this type of task.

Data analysis

You may be doing a PhD in a topic that is highly theoretical. You may not rely on quantitative analysis for your own research. Still, it’s a great idea to learn at least a little bit about it. R, Python and Julia are the languages to consider (as of 2023). These are not only useful for data analysis, as you can automate a multitude of tasks if you know some coding. You don’t need to be proficient in them, especially given how AI can help you develop your skills these days. But you should know about them and have some basic understanding. Data analysis has become a popular area of interest in academia, and there are many jobs out there that look for this type of skill, of course. Even if you’re 100% sure you want to stay in academia, being able to teach data analysis can give you a great advantage, as more and more departments realize that they should be teaching their students how to deal with data—they’ll need to hire people to update their courses and programs, and that affects what’s expected from new faculty.


I’m very interested in data visualization. I think a good figure can be extremely useful when you’re arguing for a particular approach, for example. This goes beyond data analysis: generally speaking, efficient visualization can help with your research and with your teaching (perhaps especially with your teaching)—this goes back to the points made above about presentation and communication skills overall. When you’re asked to provide teaching materials, this is one key aspect to consider. Again, as you develop some tutorials and/or materials on your research, you should consider making them available on your website so that other people can see/use them.


Many of the points mentioned above aim to give you the ability to automate tasks that can be automated. This is a good thing: it saves you time and it also reduces the probability of making mistakes (so, less time and higher accuracy). You can think of better time management as a by-product of the skills discussed here. It’s not just about doing more in less time; it’s about doing more with less effort too.

Finally, use a cloud system such as Dropbox and have an organized folder/file system that is always in sync. If you were born before 1995, this recommendation couldn’t be more obvious. But if you were born after 2000, it isn’t. While it’s true that these days you don’t necessarily need a lot of file organization to navigate technology, grad school will likely require a higher level of organization.

Copyright © 2024 Guilherme Duarte Garcia


  1. That is, through tools such as Markdown or Quarto, which I discuss here too.↩︎

  2. Here’s a great video on Quarto for academics.↩︎

  3. Better yet: use an online repository system like OSF and use links on your website to your preprints; see below.↩︎