After graduating with a master’s degree in the English language almost seven years ago, I landed a temporary job as a research secretary. My recent internship had gone well, so my previous supervisor recommended me to my new supervisor, who in turn (and to my surprise) contacted me, instead of the other way around. The next surprise came during the job interview: my boss-to-be showed little interest in my grades or other academic achievements, and only asked about the topic of my MA thesis. As fascinated as I personally was by the impoliteness strategies in the American hospital drama House M.D., I’m pretty sure it was something else that got me hired.
Not that my five years of study were irrelevant: in fact, I was partly contacted because of my good English skills. But the course content and grades alone did not determine my future career – it was something more than that. This “more” is what we call transferable skills: accumulated throughout our lives, in various settings, and transferable from one context to another. As such, they are more important than we might think, which is why we should pay attention to them.
Identify and list your skills
Transferable skills complement our expertise, shape our career path, and allow us to stand out from a group of equally competent candidates. The most common examples of these skills are team work, leadership, and IT skills – the ones that you usually shove at the bottom of your CV after listing all the qualifications you have a fancy certificate for. Although most people know about the existence of transferable skills and can name quite a variety of them, a lot of us probably don’t keep track of these skills and only start thinking about them when applying for a new job or position.
But perhaps we should. In the EURODOC 2018 Conference last April, Charlotte Weber from the Eurodoc Doctoral Training Working Group presented a practical guide aimed at doctoral students to identify, document, and justify their transferable skills. Inspired by the presentation, I immediately created a blank word file on my desktop (where it’s easy to find when I need to update it), listing and filling in the skills mentioned in the presentation (and later in the more comprehensive version of the list):
- Research (e.g. analysing data, grant applications, and open science)
- Teaching and supervision (e.g. course planning and guidance)
- Communication (e.g. presenting and professional writing skills for wider audiences)
- Career development (e.g. career planning and job searching)
- Cognitive (e.g. critical thinking, abstract thinking, and creativity)
- Interpersonal (e.g. teamwork, networking, and handling conflicts)
- Mobility (e.g. intercultural awareness/communication and foreign language skills)
- Digital (e.g. information accessing/visualisation and programming)
- Enterprise (e.g. entrepreneurship and intellectual property rights)
The list grew quickly, and when I finally thought I was done for the day, I color-coded it: green for “this seems to be nicely covered”, yellow for “some of this I have some knowledge of”, and red for “this needs to be improved a lot”. Since creating the list, I’ve opened the word file around once a month to update my skills, writing down different activities I’ve been involved in recently.
While this might seem a bit mechanical and something that can be done later when applying for a new job, for example, it’s likely that at least half of everything you’ve done during your doctoral studies (or before) has vanished from your memory by the time it becomes relevant again. Yes, you will remember the grant applications you wrote, the grants you received, the conferences and workshops you attended, and the articles you wrote (because you hopefully have them nicely archived somewhere) but what about all the things you haven’t listed or documented? And while remembering is one thing, communicating about the skills is another: You’ll also need to be able to make your case during a job interview, which is why you need a plan how to tell about your transferable skill set in a tough spot.
“But there are so many lists and skills!”
As there are endless online sources listing different sets of transferable skills (some examples being provided by the Michigan State University, the University of Reading, and JobsOnToast), it’s impossible but also unnecessary to keep track of all of them. Instead, you should create a list that is the most useful regarding your own future career goals. For example, the list I’ve presented above includes skills which I find useful from an early-career higher education researcher’s perspective. This is why some of the skills are clearly more research-career oriented than others (and because I still optimistically think there might be chance for me to continue in academia after finishing my PhD). Whichever list you end up using, the most important thing is not just to tick boxes in an “oh, I have this skill” type of manner. You need to consider each of the skills carefully: write down why you have a particular skill and how you came to possess it. You might also want to show your list to a critical friend who can then help you with getting back to reality. But once you’ve compiled your list, you’ll begin to see its value: Not only it makes you aware of the skills you still need to improve, it also reveals how great your skill set already is and hopefully makes you a little prouder of yourself.
Maybe you won’t need such lists when applying for a future job. Maybe your CV and academic achievements will be enough and you’ll find yourself permanently employed in a well-paid research position with an amazing work/life balance. Good for you. But what if there is another applicant with an equally strong CV and achievements? Or what if you apply for a job outside academia and get interviewed by a person that doesn’t care about your articles published in high-impact journals? It is in these crucial moments that your transferable skill set might tip the scale.
Melina Aarnikoivu is a doctoral student at the Centre for Applied Language Studies (University of Jyväskylä, Finland). Her transferable skills of non-academic writing, networking, and knowing a thing or two about WordPress led her to become one of the lead editors of the ECHER blog.