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School of the Humanities and Social Sciences


Transferable skills: an introduction

What are they?

During your postgraduate research, one of your main aims will be to further your knowledge and expertise in your chosen field. While you are carrying out your research, you'll also be involved in various tasks that help you to develop a wider range of skills that will be useful to you as you progress through your career to more senior positions. Many of these skills will be useful to you whether you choose to stay in academia or pursue a career outside of research. Skills that apply to many different kinds of roles are known as ‘transferable’, or sometimes ‘soft’ skills.

Think about some tasks which occur on a typical working day. You might have presented your research in a Graduate seminar, which helps to hone your communication skills. Perhaps you worked on an application for a travel grant, giving you some experience of acquiring funding for your research experience. Or maybe you convinced your supervisor to make time to read a paper you wish to submit for publication, thus employing negotiating skills

Transferable skills can also be developed outside of an academic setting. Think about some of the activities you get involved with in your spare time. Has playing football helped to develop your team mentality? Are you helping to organise social events within your department or the University?

What are the benefits?

Think about the kinds of responsibilities that people in more senior positions have – both in an academic environment and non-academic roles – tasks such as managing staff, obtaining funding or budget approval, developing relationships with outside contacts, and so on. These all require certain levels of so-called transferable skills like communication, organisation, negotiation, etc. When you are planning to make your next career move, not only will you have to convince potential employers that you have these transferable skills, you will also have to employ these skills on a daily basis in order to succeed in your chosen career.

For some careers, especially if you are thinking of moving out of the academic environment where your work is less likely to be well-known, transferable skills can become even more important to the success of your application. PhD students are increasingly valued by many different employers for their intellectual capacity, logical and analytical thinking and problem solving abilities, but in addition to your hard knowledge, employers also expect you to demonstrate many of the following:

  • Team working
  • Motivation, enthusiasm and drive
  • Interpersonal and communication skills
  • Commercial awareness

Transferable Skills – the Research Councils' view

Research Councils UK, which represents AHRC and ESRC, has set out detailed criteria describing the types of skills PhD graduates are expected to have or develop. These were outlined in the Robert's report and the Joint Skills Statement.

Summary of the core skill areas research students are expected to develop by the end of their studies:

  • Self-awareness and the ability to identify own training needs
  • Organisational skills - project management and time management.
  • Communication skills
  • Networking and team-working skills
  • Career management

What’s expected from you?

The Research Councils have stated that postgraduates should spend around 10 days per year developing their skills. Development can take many forms. For example, you could participate in a School-wide course or event such as the Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference, you could attend an in-house training course (run by Faculty members & the Postgraduate Skills Training Officer) or you could take part in an activity outside of the University that hones your skills such as volunteering.

The effectiveness of training also critically depends on the individual. Students need to be aware of the nature and value of their own transferable skills, and to take ownership and responsibility for their learning.
Extract from the Roberts Report (Para 5.49, p.131)

While it is essential that you take responsibility for your own skill development, the School and your Department will do all they can to support your training and developmental needs.

You are also recommended to keep a skills development log, enabling you to keep a record of all the activities (whether they be skills training courses, presenting a paper at a conference, taking part in outreach programme at a local school etc.) which have helped you to develop your transferable skills.

Your Department and/or Supervisor can advise you further about the use of such personal development logs.