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How transferable are academic 'skills'?
Now Playing: How transferable are academic 'skills'?
The group discusses the aims of skills training and personal development planning. They ask whether skills really can be transferred into totally new contexts, and argue that this is possible, provided attention is paid to new ways of working. They give some examples of using skills in new contexts. Finally, Debbie discusses her experience of attending a GRADschool.


Debbie: If skills training is an end in itself then we really haven’t achieved anything, we have achieved an awful lot of graduates who have gone on a course. I mean as a sort of wider aim perhaps, in skills training, is we’re trying to instigate this process of saying well ‘where do I want to be? What do I need to get there?’ you know ‘what are the skills that being in that context would require.’ And so saying you know ‘I want to be an investment banker,’ it’s unlikely in the arts and humanities, but you never know, ‘what are the skills I will need? Well, I’m going to need to be really good on time management? I’m going have to have leadership skills? I’m going to have to you know have these kind of things.’ And that information is available; the skills you need is all up there. I mean, I suppose there is an argument that it could be seen as being a bit like game playing, sort of ticking boxes and saying ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got that, I’ve got that.’ But as a general principle, I think when you mentioned personal development planning, I think that’s an important thing to say ‘what’s my goal? Where is the place I want to be? What are the steps I’m going to take to get there? And what role is training going to play in that? Is it something I am going to need training in? Is it something I don’t know enough about and therefore I’m going to have to get more information and more practice in a structured way before I go out and have the experiences that I can then take to prove that I have it? Or is it something that actually I can just get involved in to improve something that I already have knowledge of?’  

Ross: But there could be a problem here in that on the question of whether these skills are really transferable; I think the ideal of moving to, as you were saying, that PhD students get to the end of their PhD and can take stock and have a wide variety of careers they could go into, not feeling that it is academia or failing to get into academia, that I can use my skills and my abilities to go anywhere and that might be into commercial industries. If you are doing skills training say on communication and you are doing it within a university setting, if you went into, you know, industry or commercial or enterprise, surely the sort of communication you’re going to be doing there is going to be entirely different.  

Cindy: From my point of view, I teach the communication skills a bit to our postgraduates and one of beauties of teaching postgraduates is they sort of get it. You know, you are go in and do what seems to be a very generic title and some of the titles of the sessions I run drive me around the bend; I’ve got no idea what they mean. But then you go in, I think postgraduates are usually quite good at picking up on ‘okay, it’s given a general title and this is the little bit I need from this and that isn’t so relevant but it’s quite interesting.’ But I think you’re wrong in saying, or people would be wrong to say, that skills aren’t transferable; I think skills are eminently and always transferable – it’s the mindset that is not transferable, it’s the assumption that I have a skill because I am particularly good at working in a small research group and talking about what I’m doing and therefore that would have no relevance if I was working in investment banking. And in fact investment banking is an interesting example; I am always surprised how many English undergraduates, three or four a year go intoinvestment banking of one sort of another. And they are always surprised it’s happened to them. And when I talk to them about ‘what skills did you acquire to move into that’ it’s because they’ve worked out they can move into that, they can move skills from one place to another. It is about again reflection ‘how can I use the core skills I’ve got even if the situation feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar how can I use the sort of talents I’ve got.’ And so I think skills always will be transferable, it’s just that people need to work out how to transfer them.  

Ross: And I think that even though there will be subtle differences with each context, you shouldn’t underestimate the ability of someone who has undergone a skills training to adapt very quickly. My first job was not inside academia, it was inside government and the first report I had to write within government, I wrote a very academic piece and my line manager got a red pen out and showed me where I was being too academic in my writing and by the next one I had got it. And you know, it was just slightly adjusting the skills I had into a new circumstance and it wasn’t learning from scratch, it was just seeing what it was I was doing right and where I was doing wrong. And I think doing a PhD and having to write chapters and having to write conference papers, even though it is subtly different, it really prepared for me going into that.  

Debbie: One thing you can say about researchers is they are always keen to learn, they know how to learn, and they are always really curious and they are interested and they know what information they need to get there, to make the right choices. And you know, that is in itself a transferable skill that allows you to think about how you are going to apply your skills. I mean, exactly in the context you were talking about, I mean I had the same experience; when I left the library and took up in an office environment, I was completely a fish out of water. But within a couple of months I had settled down because I had figured out this is the information I needed in order to figure out how to do this job well. And because I was a researcher, it was water off a duck’s back, you just find out the information and off I went. I mean that is what research teaches us how to do.  

Cindy: And do you think you felt more confident because you were able to reflect for a moment and think, ‘well, actually I’ve been in research, I know how to do all these things.’ I mean, do you think there is something around skills training that just gives more confidence as well in your own ability to do things? I often find with students I’m saying ‘you can do this already it’s simply if you could formalise what you’ve done, then it would allow you to take it on to the next phase.’ I mean, did you feel you were more confident because you had got that research training experience?  

Debbie: I think so I think there is perhaps a slight difference in that the skills that I learned in the course of doing the research project I found infinitely transferable and I continued to find the transferable even in my daily personal life you know. But for me the value of skills training, actually attending a course and talking to the people, was partly that networking element, making friends, generating support, talking to other people about their experiences, but also that practical element of just getting a chance to practice certain things in a very structured way. And so I mean for example I went on a national grad school in the third year of my DPhil and we did things like, we did consulting exercises, we had to act as consultants to some of our tutors and there would be problems and we had to present back our different options for how they might go about tackling that problem and what the possible outcomes might be. We were just encouraged to think in a very structured and careful way as a team this was not something I had had any experience of before and I’m not under any illusions that I could now walk into a consulting job. But I knew that if I wanted to walk into a consulting job I knew exactly what kinds of skills I would need and I would be quite good at them actually, you know. And I think it is that kind of value that skills training offers as a starting point. And I think the thing about skills is you can break them down ad infinitum; communication can cover so many things. But if you have that thirst to learn about how you are going to think about doing something, which researchers tend to have, then you will probably be alright, you just need to get the sense of the general context of the area that you are talking about. 

Ross: And I think attending the courses for me helps you realise what you know and what you don’t know. When you are first presented with this ‘communication, personal effectiveness, time management,’ title the temptation is ‘oh I can work that out myself, I don’t need this. And if a situation comes where I need to communicate, I’m intelligent, I can work this out.’ And actually going on a course you find there is a lot of stuff you could do and that’s good because it’s confidence building ‘okay I can do this.’ But then also you discover what is it out there that you haven’t got experience of and it might not be anything that you want experience of, but what the world is, what the options are, and it’s only when you know what the options are you can really take control of your own development and work out ‘I need this, I don’t want to know this, I’m going to do this.’ Whereas it is very easy once you’re sort of two years into a PhD, stuck in the library, haven’t talked to another soul about your work for two months to really sort of lose perspective of where you are and where you are going. I think it is attending things and seeing what’s out there, it was the most beneficial thing for me.