THE DOCTORAL EXPERIENCE: TRANSFERRABLE SKILLS

It’s something of a buzzword; the new “synergy”: Transferrable Skills. We’re meant to identify them, and cultivate them, and position them just so on a CV or present them definitively in an interview—but what are they, really? What does the term mean, what does it entail and encompass: what are these ever-so-valuable Transferrable Skills, save for just one more thing we’re meant to accumulate before earning our qualifications and moving on to the job market, on top of so many other things?

The answer is that transferable skills can be found just about anywhere, if you keep a wary eye for them, and they don’t really require more effort, most of the time; just a new perspective. With that small shift at the core, we can break down the bulk of Transferrable Skills into quick and easy steps that will help you maximise every skill-driven experience you undertake as a doctoral researcher (including, perhaps, a few you didn’t even expect would qualify!) in order to showcase the many areas of both study and practice, within and beyond your specific field, in which you shine.

(Credit: Xena: Warrior Princess; Source: https-//38.media.tumblr.com/23ef8a0620c2890727c066a5d7e5061e/tumblr_inline_nc5mvicypg1rcmaq0)

 

Transferability as a Hermeneutical Shift

To speak in academic terms: the best way to seek out and cultivate transferrable skills is to approach your experience much like you approach your research when looking for a new project, or a new angle. There is so much already accumulated, which you know, and which has already been contributed—and yet, as we’re all aware, that’s not sufficient for a thesis proposal: there must be something new in the mix, to be added to the wealth of knowledge. Arguably, that’s the whole point of academic study as a professional undertaking.

And what’s a tried-and-true method of seeking out a new approach? Changing perspectives. Switching lenses. Undertaking, as literary and biblical scholars might term it, a hermeneutical (or interpretative) shift.

The same approach of finding newness that we use to build our core research is exactly what is called for in identifying transferrable skills. Simply take a normal day: tutoring, seminar attendance, and perhaps a lecture in the evening. Whilst tutoring, you’re obviously building teaching experience, but perhaps you want to apply for a job that’s not in the field of educational instruction. Dig a little deeper into what goes into teaching: comfort in presenting to groups, dialoguing with colleagues, leading instructive or training modules, planning for said modules, following an action plan, providing feedback, charting progress—any number of seemingly small aspects that we take for granted in the larger understanding of “teaching” or “tutoring” can be broken down to their component parts and reassigned to a different context for a different kind of position.

Similarly: you’re in seminar, jotting notes, listening for relevant points, forming questions, interacting with the presenter, etc. All of these, when taken out of the seminar context, are valuable tools: the ability to distil important information from large quantities of data, as well as to identify information relevant to a given context within those large quantities of data; the ability to record and communicate the relevant bits in the form of a short, easily accessible digest; a certain degree of comfort with not just formulating questions by identifying points that lack clarity, but also confidence in communicating those questions respectfully as both inquiries and as constructive criticism. You’ve got an impressive skill set at hand already!

Credit: Marvel's The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (Source: https://em.wattpad.com/e13949de9c906452b68803f620fd509acca9e2f6/687474703a2f2f69313036382e70686f746f6275636b65742e636f6d2f616c62756d732f753435392f456d79617765736f6d6570616e74732f69726f6e2d6d616e5f35676966706167657370656564636574443878644a48312d355f7a707362353661343231362e676966?s=fit&h=360&w=360&q=80)

And even more—if you end your day at a lecture, you’re likely engaging one of the most significance transferrable skills: face-to-face networking of both the formal and informal varieties. Do not underestimate how all of these components of your day to day life train you meaningfully in skills that are not just relevant, but necessary across countless fields. Simply shift your gaze a little, and you’ll find transferrable skills throughout most of your day. Consider jotting them down, even, when you organise an event or take charge of a particular training module: collect your experience and it will be there for you when you need it, whether it can be submitted as-is, or, perhaps merely requires a bit of reframing.

 

Double or Nothing: Creative Framing as Two Skills in One 

To that point of reframing: don’t get lured into the false idea that reframing is somehow warping what you did into something entirely different. First, remember again that you’re taking a multivalent experience and conceiving of it at its component level, teasing out all of the necessary skills required to make the larger experience a reality. All those components are required for a successful whole, and each of them represents a skill that you have cultivated and can rightfully own.

Second, be happy to embrace the reframing process itself as a skill: your capacity to think outside of the box and to take a skill or experience from one place and fit it into another speaks not just to your innovative and imaginative thinking skills (both of which are highly sought after on the job market), but also to your adaptability and resilience: one, you’ve managed to do the work of adapting either the initial experience, or the new context, in order for the two to complement one another productively, and two, you were willing and able to tackle that task in the first place. Those are both excellent (and transferrable!) skills in and of themselves.

And everyone likes a two-for-one, BOGO type of deal. On a graduate time-budget, in particular, taking more where you can get it for less is the Golden Ticket of situations: it’s almost always welcome.

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If You Value It? You’re Likely Not Alone

Finally, keep in mind that if an experience you’ve had is something you found valuable, it’s highly unlikely that you found it valuable for no good reason. Moreover: it’s unlikely that there is absolutely no piece of it that wouldn’t also be valued, via one lens or another, by other people: including hiring committees, scholarship boards, research councils and the like. Transferrable Skills often get the dubious reputation of being second-choices, or last resorts: the original plan didn’t work, so you’re not forced to rework what you’ve done to fit into a new box.

That, however, could not be farther from the truth. Every experience has the capacity to develop and lend transferrable value, and that doesn’t make it less important in one context and more important in another: it makes it significant to one’s development as a professional, and as a person, on the whole.

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So take your researcher’s eye for newness and curiosity and see what skills you might find in unexpected places. You may surprise yourself with the variety marketable, valuable skills you already possess, if only you just shift where and how you’re looking.

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4 thoughts on “THE DOCTORAL EXPERIENCE: TRANSFERRABLE SKILLS

  1. Matthew Tibble (@matthew96br) says:

    Hi Katelynn! Great article, and certainly lot’s of tips for boosting a CV. Is it possible that the ‘transferable skills’ trend has gotten a little out of control? I think there might be a danger of focusing too much on abilities that aren’t job-specific. I wrote a small piece at IncitingSparks.org discussing some of the points you brought up. http://www.incitingsparks.org/#!Transferable-Skills-A-Fools-Gold/p9ucr/571524490cf2b05e61f44569

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    • sgsahblog says:

      Hi Matthew! Thanks for your input, and your constructive thoughts in response this topic, which IS quite a fraught one, there’s no escaping that! While this post is meant to start the process of thinking about transferrable skills in a very general sense—in my experience both as a student, an employee, an interviewee, and an interviewer, there’s enough of a fundamental lack of knowledge/inclination to “sell oneself well” on the whole that it seemed advisable to start with the basics—but you do rightly underscore a slippery slope if acknowledging the capacity to do something transforms into a kind of hubris that equates with expertise. However, I would push you on the matter from an experiential point: in many fields, these transferrable skills should a) not be taken as a given just because someone DOES attend a lecture, serve as a tutor, etc., because not everyone cultivates the necessary skills TO transfer in those examples, and b) not be tossed aside as a dime-a-dozen, because oftentimes even the rudimentary knowledge of a particular skill, alongside the cultivated doctoral level of both specific and generalised expertise, are enough to be not only helpful and beneficial in the job search, but can even be impressive. Obviously not always the case, but often enough that I think it’s worth the weighing.

      Thank you for you thoughts and engagement with this—I really enjoyed reading your insights, and it invited me think more deeply on the grander scope of this issue, rather than focusing on the first-steps as featured in this post.

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  2. Matthew Tibble (@matthew96br) says:

    Hi Katelynn,

    I’d be excited to read any further articles you post regarding this issue, particularly ones that frame this piece as a useful first step and provide thoughts on how to further cultivate a promising CV. I know a number of the doctoral researchers in my department have concerns, including myself, about the tough job-market we all face when the thesis is complete!

    I believe you are correct in saying that not everybody acquires these transferable skills, or knows how to identify them, simply by attending lectures etc, however it is possible that we are still left with the problem that the types of skills, when garnered from these activities, can seem quite generic. I suppose it is also a case of learning how to include them within a CV and ensure that they are directly applicable to the job that you are searching for.

    Thank you again for the insightful piece. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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