The term ‘transferable skills’ is a bit dry, but essentially it accounts for the things you learn beyond your subject-specific expertise that can be applied to other employment positions.
In an era where the number of PhDs trained in science far outstrips the opportunity of obtaining faculty positions, the focus on delivering transferable skills for post-graduates has never been more acute.
The traditional perception that research post-grads only learn subject-specific expertise is being challenged, as more research degree graduates choose to pursue non-academic careers and are making a success of it.
So what exactly constitutes the transferable skill set and importantly how useful are these skills at assisting you to work in a diverse range of employment sectors?
Transferable Skill Sets
When I was thinking about leaving my academic position and applying for jobs in the commercial sector, one of my primary concerns was whether or not I had a skill set that would allow me to function well outside of academia. Ultimately I had to start thinking about the transferable skill set that I could use to market myself.
Fortunately, through this process I discovered that I did indeed possess a number of very useful skills for industrial roles. Furthermore, recent data (that I’ll discuss in this post), suggests I’m not alone in thinking that my research training prepared me well for life beyond academia.
15 areas of expertise have previously been identified as transferable skill sets gained by graduate students during their doctoral training programmes.1 Aside from discipline knowledge, other transferable skills included:
- Time management
- Written communication
- Interpreting information
- Decision making/problem solving
- Oral communication
- Learning quickly
- Project management
- External collaboration
- Data analysis
- Goal setting
- Managing others
- Career planning
Although this is not an exhaustive list of all the possible transferable skills acquired during doctoral training (e.g. some projects might involve in-depth negotiation skills, commercial acumen, require emotional intelligence or have a large component of computer programming), it is a list that is comprehensive for most research projects. Furthermore, the applicability of each of these skills in the workplace is supported by empirical evidence (see below).
The value of Researchers’ Transferable Skills in the Job Market
Little research has been performed on this subject. However, a recent publication sought to fill this knowledge gap.
A survey of 8,099 science-qualified PhDs who had worked, trained or studied in the US was conducted to establish just how useful their transferable skills are in diverse roles within the job market.2
Survey participants were asked to rate each skill on a scale of importance for their current employment and were categorised into having either research-intensive (RI) jobs (in academia, industry or government agencies) or non-research-intensive (NRI) careers.
The study’s findings were remarkable. Not only were these skills transferable across all RI and NRI careers investigated (in general terms being rated of equal importance across a diverse range of careers), but participants also rated job satisfaction equally between the two groups.
Skillset exceptions to this general trend included external collaboration, creativity and career planning that were ranked as more proficient in employees in RI positions, and project management, learning quickly and time management by respondents in NRI positions.2
Overall, this work demonstrates that doctoral training provides a range of transferable skills that are vital for success in a variety of careers. This challenges the traditional concept that the skills acquired at graduate school are only relevant to RI jobs.
Although the data is US-centric and focused on science qualified PhDs, there’s no reason to suggest that the findings cannot be extrapolated to wider research community demographics (i.e. non-doctoral qualified/non-scientific/non-US based researchers).
So which skills in particular are suitable for which types of employment?
Although transferable skills in the Sinche et al., 2017 study were deemed broadly useful across all careers investigated, ranked data on the most valuable skills for each profession shows that certain employees valued some skills higher than others for particular professions.
Figure 1 shows the top 3 highest ranked transferable skills deemed as most important by respondents working in a range of employment sectors.
Figure 1 – The three most important transferable skills for employment in a variety of research-related career tracks. The top 3 important skills (highlighted in grey) are indicated across the top. *Includes; academic tenure-track, academic non-tenure track, industry and government-based research posts (the most frequently recorded important skills across all 4 RI career tracks are shown). Abbreviations: RI, research intensive. Adapted from published data.2
Data interpretation was the transferable skill that was ranked as one of the most important for most career tracks (78% of all career tracks analysed).
It’s important to note that although some transferable skills might be ranked as most important for a particular job type, it does not mean that the others are not also required. Therefore, skills that never made the top three (including, problem-solving, goal setting, creativity, managing others and career planning) are still viewed as useful and desirable by many employers.
Career planning is interesting because it was also rated as the least developed doctoral training skill in the study,2 suggesting graduate programmes are failing their students in obtaining a good foundation in this essential transferable skill.
Overall the data described here provides empirical evidence that directly challenges conventional thought, namely:
- Research training provides a diverse skill set, applicable to many career tracks. This challenges the traditional view that research training only provides students with field-relevant knowledge, limiting options for other career tracks.
- Participants reported equal levels job satisfaction between RI and NRI careers, challenging the idea that only tenure-track careers offer true job satisfaction.
- Talented researchers find rewarding jobs outside of the traditional academic route that allows them to use the same skill set that they did during their research training.
- Sinche, M. Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science. Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA (2016).
- Sinche, M. et al. An evidence-based evaluation of transferable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLoS One 12, e0185023 (2017).