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What exactly are 'skills'?
Name: Caroline
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: University teaching; media; business (property management)
Year of graduation: 2001
Date of Interview: 24/06/2008

Now Playing: What exactly are 'skills'?
The meaning of ‘skills’ is debated, and different ways of analysing and understanding the term are suggested. The group goes on to explore what skills development might mean for individuals, and finally discusses how a generic term like ‘communication skills’ might encompass a whole range of different activities.

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Debbie: I think for a lot of arts and humanities students this list of so called skills of communication and team working and networking, they seem very divorced from the context and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, in your eyes, what a skill is?

Cindy: Yes, I think you’re right, the word causes a lot of confusion. I recently had a student come into me, it was the end of his first year as an English student doing his PhD, saying ‘I’m not entirely sure what a skill is but I’m fairly sure I haven’t got any.’ I was quite interested because it was making him really anxious before we had even started the process and of course he had lots of skills. It seems to me we are talking about a skills agenda, we are talking about skills training, very often it is about students making a conscious decision to think about what skills do they have. And to me a skill is something that you do and you can show, you can demonstrate that you can do something. I think that whilst we’re using skills all the time, it is about saying ‘do I have a skill in this area because can show to an employer? But more important probably, can I show to myself that I am capable of working on, for example, time management?’ Presumably we all get up in the morning and we must have some level of time management; I think it is about students being able to recognise and quantify in some way ‘I’m quite good at that, I’m better than somebody else on that, I need to do more work on that…’ and so I think skills are about how you record things as much as about what you do. You wouldn’t necessarily agree?

Debbie: I suppose I’m wondering what the difference between something like… I mean, I would have thought a skill maybe like, I don’t know, knowing how to bounce a yoyo or something, it is quite often associated with something that can be practiced and can be learnt. And I wonder if to some extent some skills are more to do with personality traits and preferences, and obviously nobody disputes that if your personality is bent one way that you couldn’t behave in the opposite way. But I think so much of it is to do with figuring out what you’re happy with and the direction you want to develop in as a person and the kind of associated activities that will then lead you into… but then that’s sort of takes the area of skills out of it altogether in some ways.

Cindy: Well, I think you’re right. I think one of the important things is to not make any assumption that we need to have all the skills we could possibly have. I think it is about students, and particularly postgraduate students and PhD students, being able to take control and say ‘I have a skill in IT; I’m very good, I can use Endnote, I know how to work all of these different systems and I hate computers and I never ever want to see a computer again when I leave and I’ve finished the PhD.’ And so there is something about sometimes having skills that you actually want to consciously abandon when you move on. But also some students will say ‘what I would like to do is work in a library for three years, I would rather not come out, I would rather not talk to anybody and I would rather always work on my own.’ That’s fine, we don’t all have to think we have to have skills in team-working and networking, it’s useful but I think we have to respect that some people aren’t going to want to develop certain skills and that is about one of the most crucial aspects of how we are going to move forward in terms of skills training. It is about researchers taking control, about PhD students working through a system of you know PDP system or a personal log of some sort, a record of what they are doing and they know to analyse ‘what skills do I have, where do I not have skills, which skills do I want to develop?’ And that I think is quite difficult. It is difficult for supervisors who are used to being sometimes quite possessive of their supervisees and used to saying ‘no don’t worry about all that other stuff you’ve got to do, you just stay with me and we will work on this together’ I think that can be a problem. But it is also that many researchers have never had to think about this before, it’s changing because undergraduate provision of skills training, particularly related to careers, is changing. And so that feeds into maybe a culture of assuming that you will want to develop skills in order to be employed. But at undergraduate level, that can be quite narrow; it is not about ‘this will make you a more effective person’ it is about ‘this will make you more employable.’ But it does give us a basis I think to work forward to generations now coming through, of PhD students who are used to some level this self-analysis at undergraduate level and will be able to take the trouble to think ‘what do I need.’

Ross: Isn’t one of the problems here though that because you are dealing with thousands of individuals with their own individual needs and own individual desires and you’re trying to fit them into a skills programme that is really on a national basis. If you’re talking about communications skills, well what does that mean? I mean communicating with whom? By what medium? Is it to students? Is it to employers? Is it to your peers? Is it by email? Is it by letter? Is it by lecture? Is it by whatever it may be, that these titles seem to become meaningless. You know, ‘I’ve done this base course, I now have communications skills and I don’t understand a word you’re saying.’

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