Transferable skills are perhaps the job-seekers biggest asset. They can certainly help you get a job – making your CV stand out and impressing an interviewer – and can also help you to succeed in pretty much any new undertaking. The problem is, much of the time transferable skills remain elusive – we know we must have some, but we often aren’t really sure what they look like and so can’t recognise them when we need to.
On top of which, it’s easy not to think about transferrable skills until it’s time to apply for a job, which can sometimes be too late.
Instead, it’s important to think about the kinds of transferable skills you have, and how they might be useful for any future career aspirations whilst still working away in your current role, or as a student.
Spotting transferrable skills
Some transferrable skills may be obvious – scientists are especially good at problem solving and analysis, for instance. But there are other skills, often known as ‘soft skills’, which form part of your work or home life activities that might not come to mind immediately, but could be usefully applied in a different role or context.
“The 2011 Careers in Research Online Survey results reveal that university researchers are engaged in a wide range of activities beyond pure research,” Anna Price, Researcher Development Advisor at Kings College London, told the Naturejobs Career Expo last month. These activities include presentations at conferences, teaching, organising events such as a conference or workshop, and organizational and project management skills. What you do outside of work can also count. “You might be on the Parent-Teacher Association, or running a book club. These can be really useful when applying for jobs that require skills that aren’t part of your key role,” Price said.
If you are struggling to identify these skills yourself, there are tools that can help. Vitae, a UK organisation dedicated to career development for researchers, has produced a research and development framework (RDF) specifically to help researchers and those who want to enter research to indentify their strengths and priorities. They are also developing an online app, called the RDF planner,to make it even easier to use the framework.
Once you have started to identify what transferrable skills you have, it should also become clear where the gaps are, which is when you can start thinking about development and gaining those skills that are missing. Most employers offer training for their staff, and while time consuming training courses can feel like an additional chore, they really should be seen as a free investment in your own career prospects. So make the most of the courses on offer.
Identify areas that would be really useful for your current job or future roles, but beyond that, prioritise stuff you actually enjoy. “Take a step back and get to know yourself,” said Sara Williams, Training and Development Manager at Cardiff University, also speaking at the Career Expo: “your personality and your preferences are vital.” Think about the things that come naturally to you and that you enjoy best in your job, and “go with the things that you enjoy,” she said.
After this initial self reflection, it’s time to seek external input. Invite feedback from you colleagues and also from your friends and family who “can be brutally honest about what your strengths and – especially – weaknesses are. Draw on these networks,” Williams said. As for colleagues, your mentor, appraiser, PI, head of department, as well as career development staff can all help identify the skills that you need.
Looking to future roles
If you have an idea of the kind of role you’d like to progress on to, take a look at the specified skills in job ads, suggests Williams: “what are they asking for and where do you measure up against that?” The same applies to a promotion – the skills you would need for that promotion are the things you should prioritise in your career development.
If you doubt the need for developing your skills-base to progress in your career, consider the fact that postdoc level is the most specialised your knowledge base will ever be. To progress up the career ladder, you’ll need to broaden your knowledge. Just think about vice chancellors or company CEOs – it’s no longer important what they studied or specialised in, instead they rely on other skills such as communication and management.
If your employer doesn’t run much formal career development, in the form of training or workshops, there are ways around this. Try to agree areas for development during appraisals, says Stephen Tarling, Researcher Development Officer at the University of Southampton. For instance, if you’d like to do more public speaking, if it is already a clear part of your development as agreed during an appraisal, your boss will be more likely to shell out for your trip to a conference when the time comes.
Tarling stresses that whatever you do, it’s vital to put a plan together and set some time aside for your own career development. Don’t let your superiors force you to spend your time on the things that don’t matter to you. “Your career is important,” he says, “don’t put it off”.
What would you say are you most valuable transferable skills? Let us know.