EUA Council for Doctoral Education


New strategies for translating transferable skills into diverse contexts

Despite extensive efforts by universities to embed transferable skills training within doctoral programmes, Pam Denicolo, Dawn Duke and Julie Reeves observe that UK employers across sectors express a lack of key employability skills in doctoral graduates. The authors consider a core issue the lack of guidance on translating these skills into diverse contexts, both within and beyond academia.

Twenty years of emphasis within doctoral education on the development of generic, transferable skills in addition to research skills has yet to satisfy employers that doctoral graduates are fully prepared for working in professional domains both within and outside academia. The “fitness for purpose” of doctoral education as a prelude to professional employment that makes an effective contribution to national economies is still in question. Yet the number and diversity of interests, backgrounds and career aspirations of doctoral candidates continue to grow.

There is an evident gap between the teaching of skills in universities and the practice requirements of employers. This is despite extensive efforts to identify the key skills required of researchers, in whatever realm of employment they eventually find themselves, combined with the widespread provision of skills training programmes. We suggest that the bridge for this gap requires acknowledgement that, though we are teaching skills that can be transferred between tasks and contexts, we are, in general, failing to teach our researchers how to transfer them. Translating the essence of a skill into different forms to fit prevailing cultures and modus operandi requires more than information and/or a short workshop, it requires experiences with the context.

All skills, cognitive or sensori-motor, including the ability to translate knowledge of “how to do things” into different environments, require practise. We are doing doctoral researchers a disservice if or when we imply that the skills training provided, usually as electives, during their doctoral programmes are adequate to prepare them for the wide range of work in which they may subsequently engage. Doctoral candidates must have opportunities throughout their doctorate to interact with the world of work or environments, organisations and people outside of their immediate discipline area and beyond academia, empowering them to understand the expectations of other internal and external stakeholders. In recognition of the reflex concerns of supervisors and funders when additions to programmes are proposed, we suggest that these opportunities need not be excessively time-consuming nor great distractions from the progress of the doctoral research. Indeed, we have seen them enhance productivity and timely completion. Furthermore, if these experiences are embedded into the course of the doctorate, we will educate the future generations of doctorate holders not only to create knowledge but to enable its eventual use for society’s benefit.

To support our case, we present two examples that are currently being readily incorporated into the doctoral experience. The first relates to the key transferable skill of communication requiring clear, concise and focused messaging tailored for different audiences, whose needs have been explored and are responded to. Just as funding bodies require academics to produce lay summaries of their proposals, increasingly doctoral researchers are encouraged to produce “elevator pitches” and synopses of their research for public engagement. In doing this, they are both using and translating their communication skills.

The second example is a riposte to the frequently heard complaint from employers that university research is too esoteric; their requirement is for people who can resolve “real-life” issues. Like all researchers, we can attest empathetically to doctoral candidates’ continuous need to solve real life problems, be they in a lab, library or fieldwork as well as in their personal situations. However, evidence of that ability that satisfies external critics was scarce until recent pressures across academia to demonstrate the impact of funded research filtered down to the doctoral level. Now, many UK universities require doctoral candidates to produce impact statements within their theses. Such researchers are required to consider from the beginning the potential research outputs of their projects and how these might eventually contribute to outcomes of value to theory, the economy, and society in general.

What are the many other potentially transferable skills and how might they be made more transparently translated into employment contexts? We have been involved with providing week-long, residential summer schools for physics doctoral candidates that include employers from commerce, industry and the professions providing insights into their work. A keystone of the week was a consultancy challenge for which each employer provided a real, contemporary challenge faced by their company. Few of these challenges required deep knowledge of physics theories and procedures but all required analytical, organisational, timekeeping, teamworking, leadership, negotiation and persuasion skills, amongst others, to resolve them. In small competitive teams, doctoral candidates worked on the problems over three days that also incorporated other challenges and talks. They then presented to the whole group of participants their solutions on posters and with illustrative creations made from, for example, Lego bricks or playdough, and then each team made a “business pitch” to the employers. Prizes were awarded for best demonstration of diverse skills while business cards for future reference were exchanged. Feedback from both the employers and the doctoral candidates strongly indicated that each had learned much about the other during the process, while the researchers reported learning much about their own, previously unrecognised or under-estimated, strengths.

Importantly, these illustrations suggest that awareness-raising, and the embedding of opportunities within the doctorate are key to resolving this impasse. Indeed, engaging employers in our work with doctoral candidates does demonstrate to them the potential contributions these researchers can bring to the workplace beyond the small contribution to knowledge embedded in the arcane language of their discipline. Working with employers provides doctoral candidates with opportunities to both identify and then translate their latent skills into observable outcomes. There remains, though, the significant task of persuading the wider community of supervisors and university managers to make the most of their investment in the training of transferable skills by recognising the importance of enabling and facilitating the translation of them into wider contexts.

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Dawn Duke

Dawn Duke is Head of Researcher Development and Engagement at the University of Surrey, where she leads a team that supports the transferable/employability skills of postgraduate and early-stage researchers across all disciplines. She is passionate about the need to bring researchers together with stakeholders from a range of sectors, integrating this wider expertise into training and creating spaces for discussion and knowledge exchange. She is involved in national and international working groups to enhance the quality of supervision and of researcher skill development.

Julie Reeves

Julie Reeves is currently the Researcher Developer at the University of Southampton. She has been designing, developing and delivering professional development courses and programmes for doctoral, postdoctoral researchers, their supervisors and line managers since 2004/05. Her academic background is in politics and international relations and she held a Visiting Faculty Fellowship with the Civic Education Project, teaching in Belarus and Ukraine. She has conducted research on behalf of Vitae and, working with Pam Denicolo, was a key contributor to the ‘Researcher Development Framework’ (RDF).

Pam Denicolo

Pam Denicolo, Professor Emerita and Consultant on Doctoral Issues at the University of Surrey, is a very experienced doctoral supervisor and examiner. She provides workshops for supervisors and researchers on supervision, examining, research methods, writing, publishing, gaining funding, etc. She has held leading roles in national and international organisations with doctoral education remits and publishes widely, e.g. she is the founder editor of and contributor to the Sage book series: Success in Research.