Cognitive skills

Cognitive skills includes the ability to evaluate and synthesise existing knowledge, problem solve, construct an argument and analyse and present data.

Cognitive skills are the core skills your brain uses to think, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention. This includes the ability to analyse, process and apply knowledge, and to evaluate and decide. Essential cognitive skills in the workplace include the ability to evaluate and synthesise existing knowledge and the ability to problem solve. To be able to evaluate information effectively you must be able to think critically about the reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, point of view and bias of your sources of information. In addition to this is the ability to synthesis existing knowledge, by combining different aspects of your research and the thoughts of others to produce new ideas. In order to problem solve successfully you must be able to analyse a situation, brainstorm and evaluate a set of possible solutions, implement a plan and assess the outcomes.

Additional cognitive skills that you will be expected to possess include the ability to construct an argument and to be able to analyse and present data. To make an argument is to be able to take a particular stand on an issue and provide evidence to support your claims. In constructing an argument you will need to do research and gather convincing and objective facts, take a balanced approach by considering all perspectives, and come to a logical and reasonable conclusion. Being able to effectively analyse data means examining collected data and interpreting it to find trends or patterns. Doing so assists in understanding the results of surveys conducted and makes use of already existing studies to obtain new results. Once analysed, it is important to be able to present data in a way that is meaningful to your audience. This may include creating pictorial representation such as graphs, charts or maps, in order to make the data easier to understand.


Technical skills

All researchers need to build the technical skills required for high quality research in their field. Skills will include the effective use of research methods, including data collection and analysis; statistics; and relevant software applications.

Taking full responsibility for your project means learning everything you can to make it succeed. Whilst your supervisor or other members of your team have important knowledge to impart to you, don’t rely purely on this. Read texts books, articles and manuals extensively, learn the fundamental principles and then return to these materials as you put the knowledge into practice.

Take advantage of workshops offered at UWA, as well as the online training resources provided for staff and students.


Disciplinary knowledge

A discipline is delineated by its approach to investigating, reasoning, conceptualizing and interpreting the world or phenomena. Debate and divisiveness may be a part of a discipline’s philosophical and theoretical history but it is the set of common understandings that distinguishes a discipline. Each discipline has a unique focus or “lens”.

Disciplines with well-developed paradigms such as physics, are thought to have unambiguous ways of defining, ordering, and investigating knowledge. At the other end of the scale are fields such as education and sociology where there is greater disagreement about methods for inquiry, criteria for determining acceptable findings, whether theories are proven, and the importance of problems to study.

A discipline specialist:

  • understands the structure of knowledge of their discipline
  • applies discipline-specific approaches to new situations
  • works at the cutting edge of knowledge in their field
  • contributes to inter-disciplinary problems from the perspective of their discipline



Critical Thinking

What does it mean to think critically? The English word critical comes from the Greek Kritikos which means to question and evaluate. A definition of critical thinking might be something like ‘making sense of the world by carefully examining the thinking process in order to clarify and improve our understanding’. The heritage of critical thinking can be found in the Socratic tradition of philosophy and has shaped Western understandings of scholarship.

The activities which make up critical thinking include the following: thinking actively and independently, carefully exploring situations with questions, viewing situations from different perspectives, and presenting ideas in an organised way. To be a critical thinker one must adopt a particular attitude to the world, one which is at its core ‘disruptive’ in the sense that established knowledge is not taken for granted but should be investigated. The creation of new knowledge is the goal of the critical thinker.

In academic work critical thinking can be applied to both the reading and writing processes. When reading the published literature in our field we always try to adopt a questioning and analysing approach towards the sources. When we read critically and analytically we ask questions of or ‘interrogate’ the text.

Being critical in writing involves not only the evaluation of arguments, but the construction of an argument or ‘claim’ (these terms are often used interchangeably). A general definition of an argument might be something like ‘a form of thinking in which certain statements or reasons are offered in support of a conclusion’. The goal of the critical writer is to persuade the reader of the validity of the argument that is being presented.

The ability to think critically is the central element in the set of tools and techniques that make up what are called ‘analytical skills’. Researchers use their analytical skills to identify and understand problems and work towards their solutions. The research process itself provides us with the analytical skills to be able to, for instance, breakdown problems, gather and evaluate data, manage information, and generate solutions. Whilst each component of the research process requires discreet skills, we apply to each stage a critical mindset which constantly questions why we do things in certain ways and why we accept (or reject) certain conclusions.


Large scale, conceptual problems

As part of your research you may spend a significant amount of time investigating conceptual problems. You may need to take a large scale, conceptual problems and operationalize an approach to find a solution. These problems typically require understanding of key ideas and the application of concepts to new situations. You will often be required to set apart what is known and what is unknown, and perform some type of analysis. Operationalization is the process of defining fuzzy concepts, or ‘conceptual variables’, and allowing them to be measured, empirically and quantitatively. Operationalization is essential in many disciplines, especially those that use ordinal measurements. It determines how researchers measure an emotion or arbitrary concept, and allows others to replicate the research process as well as perform statistical analysis of the results.
The skills required to operationalise a large scale, conceptual problem include being able to categorise problems based on core principles, use principle-based schemas to guide problem solving, and plan solution strategies at an appropriate level of detail. At a higher level, finding solutions to these types of problems involves the capacity to generate innovative conceptual knowledge through discovery of new facts, as well as the formulation of theories or the reconstitution of established theories, base knowledge or recognised ideologies.


Core Values

Core values are considered to be the fundamental beliefs of a person or an organization and as a research you will need to nurture and develop the core values of your discipline. In a personal sense they help dictate behaviour and govern relationships. At an organizational level they help to define what a company stands for and whether they are on the right path and fulfilling their goals. The discipline that you work in will have its own set of values that will form the foundation on how you and your colleagues work and conduct yourselves.
Examples of core values for your discipline may include such things as innovation, efficiency, sustainability, creativity, perseverance, environmentalism and courage. You will be expected to adhere to these values in your day-to-day work, and understand how and why they underpin the work that is performed. You will also need to recognise and demonstrate how these values guide the overall teaching practices, business processes, and decision making in your discipline.


Collegiality is considered a cornerstone of professional work in the university environment. The term refers to positive professional relationships that foster genuine collaboration, support individual endeavours and have a foundation of mutual respect. In some places, collegiality is considered a fourth criterion for tenure, alongside teaching, research and service.

Elements of collegiality include:

  • Ethical practice
  • Integrity
  • Support of others
  • Mentorship and sponsorship of others
  • Participation in decision-making
  • Consultation

The UWA Code of Ethics and the UWA Code of Conduct provide guidance in relation to behaviour at UWA.


Sense of Purpose

It is often the case that HDR students aspire to a career in academia or in research more broadly. Yet the academic environment is relatively cut-throat, with limited and highly competitive job prospects. In order to stand out above others we are told to publish in high impact journals, attract external research funding, and establish collaborations nationally and internationally. Some degree of self-promotion often goes a long with these activities as we strive for a research profile or track record to ensure visibility within our scholarly community.

Whilst none of this is necessarily bad, the desire for recognition in a competitive job market may lead to ‘aggressive’ or at least potentially unethical and self-centred behaviours in an attempt to secure that prized academic position. Likewise, once in a position, the desire to maintain the job and ensure career progression may cloud some peoples’ ‘moral compass’. Whilst some degree of competition might be healthy, it can easily become unhealthy when the welfare and rights of others are disregarded.

Adopting a sense of purpose greater than one’s self and career is important and of great benefit. Altruism involves selflessness and can be achieved through supporting others in academia. Certain activities have been established to ensure that we cultivate a happy and collegial work environment, one in which early career researchers are welcomed and encouraged. Mentoring programs, co-authorship on papers, introducing new researchers to established networks and a variety of ‘service’ activities are some of the ways that one can care for the welfare of others in a professional setting. Look for ways to be supportive of others, and for opportunities to take advantage of the kindness of more senior colleagues.

Care of the Discipline

Many of us enter in to an academic discipline because we want to engage in the intellectual pursuit of knowledge in an area of scholarship that reflects our passions and interests. Along the way we learn a set of conceptual and technical skills that puts us in good stead to contribute to scholarship in that broad discipline through the production of new knowledge; perhaps more specifically defined within the limits of a research area. Ultimately we are seeking to transform knowledge and contribute to the work of a scholarly community. We also assume various roles in our work within the discipline beyond that of ‘researcher’. We may, for instance, choose to become a mentor for junior researchers, we may sit on committees, take on a leadership position, manage resources, supervise thesis writers, teach and collaborate.

Whether it be in the narrower context of a particular research project, or in the broader context of a role within a department in a university or research institute, there is a shared moral dimension inherent in both. We have in either case a clear set of ethical guidelines and/or code of conduct and an obligation to comply with them. In our relationships with students, colleagues and managers we demonstrate integrity, pride and what has in previous commentary been called ‘stewardship’ to ensure we always act in good faith and with the ultimate aim of advancing the discipline of which we are a part. Caring for the discipline means transcending self-interest by serving the scholarly community and society.

History and Philosophy of Discipline

Having an understanding of the historical and philosophical foundations of one’s discipline is important for two reasons. Firstly we may think of an academic discipline as a ‘branch of knowledge’ with its own modes of inquiry (both theoretical and methodological), research foci, writing practices and concepts. Academic disciplines are, and becoming even more, narrowly focused and specialized. As this occurs communicating across academic disciplines becomes more difficult, which makes interdisciplinary collaborations more challenging. Increasingly reductionist disciplinary approaches may also have the effect of making research more insular and less relevant to society. Having an understanding of the genealogy and philosophical foundations of one’s discipline allows us to appreciate the close connections between disciplines and the opportunities for investigating phenomena from a different perspective, and participating in more creative exchanges of ideas.

The second reason why having an understanding of the historical and philosophical foundations of one’s discipline is important is that it allows for a critique of disciplinary practices and assumptions. Historically academic disciplines have arisen within particular social, political and economic circumstances. They have been shaped and reshaped by these circumstances. Many social science disciplines, for example, had emerged in the mid to late 19th century, a period characterised by the colonial expansion of Europe. Scholars of the new discipline of Anthropology developed theories of racial hierarchy and biological determinism which eventually served to justify the exploitation of indigenous peoples. The methodological and conceptual legacy of colonialism in the discipline of anthropology has since been well documented and critiqued, however this case illustrates the way that historical circumstances can inflect academic work today.