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Skills and development

Participate in SKILLSETS workshops on transferable skills, then...

... practise, practise, practise! SKILLSETS offers workshops and events for graduate students on a wide variety of topics such as communication, teaching and leadership skills. There are plentiful opportunities both on and off campus to practise these skills, such as submitting an essay to a journal, joining a startup, or holding an executive position in an extracurricular group.

 

According to the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) (Rose, 2012) graduate students’ professional skills are composed of academic skills (skills related to research and teaching) and transferable skills (e.g., interpersonal, leadership, career development).

The goal of professional skills training is to ensure that – equipped with all that their graduate degrees have prepared them to do – graduate students will be well-prepared to move forward within the typically fast-paced, interconnected, multidisciplinary, multi-cultural and team-based workplace environments that characterize today’s worlds of work, whether academic, for-profit, or not-for-profit in nature.
(Rose, 2012 ,p. 4)

Given the current trend that only a relatively small percentage of PhD graduates will obtain traditional tenure-track positions (see the Careers page for more information), supervisors and supervisees at all levels of study should pay attention to transferable or workplace readiness skills in addition to academic skills.

 


Examples of transferable skills

  1. Leadership

  2. Teamwork

  3. Emotional intelligence

  4. Communication with a variety of individuals

  5. Time management

  6. Networking

  7. Teaching

  8. Critical and creative thinking

  9. Self-assessment

  10. Work-life balance

Adapted from Polziehn (2011) and Rose (2012). For a more extensive list, see Skills for graduate students.

Developing transferable skills through SKILLSETS workshops

SKILLSETS is a McGill initiative aimed at enhancing the experience of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows by helping them develop a wide range of transferable skills. It is hosted collaboratively by Teaching and Learning Services and Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

SKILLSETS offers workshops and events focused on:

  1. knowledge mobilization;

  2. academic integrity;

  3. teaching competence;

  4. research management;

  5. career development;

  6. supervision;

  7. social responsibility

  8. fellowships and funding; and

  9. life skills.

Opportunities to practise transferable skills

Make a list of skills that you think you might be expected to demonstrate throughout your graduate studies and career. Think about how your activities and interests can provide opportunities to practise these skills. Some examples are listed below (Polziehn, 2011).

Skill

Examples of opportunities to practise

Leadership

 

  • Holding an executive or management position on student government, an organization or a team
  • Organizing an event, such as a conference, seminar or journal club

 

Teamwork

 

  • Participating in a sports team
  • Volunteering as part of a group

 

Written communication

 

  • Reviewing or editing documents
  • Writing emails, articles, stories, or blog posts

 

Oral communication

  • Presentations at conferences, seminars, debates or community events

Teaching

  • Teaching assistantships
  • Tutoring
  • Leading workshops or courses
  • Mentoring undergraduate or high school students

How can you determine and describe your skill set?

Many graduate students and new researchers acquire a range of skills that sometimes surprises them with its versatility, and one's employability can remain strong despite the impression that one's skills are becoming narrower because of advanced research. The skills learned during graduate studies are highly transferable, but can often feel difficult to describe in non-research terms.

 

It is common for students at the end of their research program to find it very difficult to identify the general skills that they have developed, even though they can define the content knowledge and technical skills they have gained. Consequently, they are unable to define and promote them adequately to potential employers and to the broader community. The tools listed below can help students and researchers assess their skills and communicate these skills in a less specialized way.

The Researcher development framework from the University of Oxford’s Vitae website

The Researcher development framework from the University of Oxford’s Vitae website

This tool includes a categorized list of skills developed through research, as well as descriptions of the stages of their development.

  1. Knowledge and intellectual abilities (e.g., knowledge base; cognitive abilities; creativity)

  2. Personal effectiveness (e.g., personal qualities; self-management; professional and career management)

  3. Research governance and organization (e.g., professional conduct; research management; finance, funding and resources)

  4. Engagement, influence and impact (e.g., working with others; communication and dissemination; engagement and impact)

The listed abilities go beyond research to include, for instance, teamwork and time management, which are applicable to non-academic as well as academic careers.

The Research skill development framework from the University of Adelaide

The Research skill development framework from the University of Adelaide

This tool focuses on the evaluation of research practice by examining the development of independence. Skills at various levels of independence across six “facets of research” are identified.

The “facets of research” are:

  1. Embark and clarify (e.g., formulating hypotheses, considering ethical issues)

  2. Find and generate (e.g., data collection)

  3. Evaluate and reflect (e.g., critiquing sources, employing metacognition)

  4. Organize and manage (e.g., data management, teamwork)

  5. Analyze and synthesize (e.g., interpretation of data)

  6. Communicate and apply (e.g., presenting, writing)

The skills are discussed in a research context, but many are applicable to non-research environments as well.

Transferable skills that are and are not developed during graduate studies

The three most popular skills needed on the job of McGill PhD graduates, as determined by the 2013 graduation outcomes survey, were:

  • critical and creative thinking;

  • personal effectiveness (e.g., presentation, self-evaluation, networking, stress and time management); and

  • integrity and ethical content.

Many transferable skills are developed through research experience and associated activities, but there are some important skills that are less practised during these experiences.

 

Many institutions have realized that graduates often enter non-academic career paths (e.g., 2013 Phd graduate outcomes survey; Mason, Goulden, & Frasch, 2009), and therefore the importance of providing opportunities for the development of transferable skills. Although many general skills are developed during graduate studies, there are still some important skills and traits that receive less attention.

Skills often developed during graduate studies

(Martin, 2015; Syncox, 2016; Crotty, 2004; Manathunga, 2004; Metcalfe, 2004)

Skills often inadequately developed during graduate studies

(Martin, 2015; Syncox, 2016; Porter & Phelps, 2014, Golovushkina, 2013)

 

  • Research-specific skills and techniques
  • Logical, critical and creative thinking
  • Collecting and processing information
  • Evaluating alternatives objectively
  • Grasping implications of new information
  • Anticipating and identifying problems, consequences and solutions
  • Writing and reading comprehension
  • Effectively conveying information orally
  • Taking initiative
  • Working independently, collaboratively and with a team

 

 

  • Career management
  • Negotiation and persuasion
  • Managing, inspiring and motivating others
  • Awareness and understanding of others’ reactions
  • Management of material resources, operations and finances
  • Personal qualities, such as confidence, enthusiasm and self-reflection
  • Communication with individuals outside of the discipline of study

 

 

How supervisors and students can work together to promote skill development

A study by Golovushkina (2013) suggests that students feel that seeking skill development opportunities is their responsibility, and supervisors feel that students should approach them to discuss gaps in their skill set that they would like to work on. Some supervisors may feel that encouraging their students to pursue non-research skill development opportunities, such as teaching positions, may negatively impact their research progress. However, research suggests that students who held teaching roles in addition to their research showed stronger research skills, such as hypothesis formation and experimental design, relative to students who did not teach (Feldon, 2011).

Regular discussions between student and supervisor regarding skill development can benefit both parties. One strategy to accomplish this is the use of action plans (Kiley, McCormack, Maher, Cripps, 2004, Manathunga, 2004), in which desired skills are identified and opportunities for their development are listed. Such a process helps students plan their research and furthers their career development, and helps supervisors provide more extensive support to students and acknowledge their achievements (Manathunga, 2004).

 

References

2013 PhD graduation outcomes survey. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. McGill University.

Crotty, R. (2004). The implementation of research degree qualities: A university-wide approach. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education: proceedings of the 2004 International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference (pp. 18-21). Canberra: CELTS.

Feldon, D.F., Peugh, J., Timmerman, B. E., Maher, M. A., Hurst, M., Strickland D., Stiegelmeyer, C. (2011). Graduate students’ teaching experiences improve their methodological research skills. Science, 333(6045), 1037-1039.

Golovushkina, E. & Milligan, C. (2013). Employability development in the context of doctoral studies: systemic tensions and the views of key stakeholders. International Journal of Training and Development, 17, 194–209.

Kiley, M., McCormack, C., Maher, B., & Cripps, A. (2004). Learning plans for higher degree by research students at the University of Canberra. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education: proceedings of the 2004 International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference. Canberra: CELTS.

Martin, Frederica (2015-2016). Leadership Workshop Series for Graduate Students. A project funded by the de l'Entente Canada-Québec relative à l'enseignement dans la langue de la minorité et à l'enseignement de la langue seconde, Ministère de l'Éducation et de l'Enseignement supérieur.

Metcalfe, J. (2004). Re-imagining outcomes for research education: A national cross-disciplinary focus on students. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.), Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education: proceedings of the 2004 International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference (pp. 3-8). Canberra: CELTS.

Manathunga, C. (2004). Developing research students' graduate attributes. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.),Quality in postgraduate research: Re-imagining research education: proceedings of the 2004 International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference (pp. 22-31). Canberra: CELTS.

Mason, M., Goulden, M. & Frasch, K. (2009). Why graduate students reject the fast track. Academe Online, January-February.

Polziehn, R. (2011). Skills expected from graduate students in search of employment in academic and non-academic settings. Edmonton: University of Alberta.

Porter, S. D., & Phelps, J. M. (2014). Beyond skills: An integrative approach to doctoral student preparation for diverse careers. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 44(3), 54-67.

Rose, M. (2012). Graduate student professional development: A survey with recommendations. Canadian Association for Graduate Studies.

Syncox, David (2016-2017). Le Programme de formation en leadership, d’ Université McGill. A project funded by the de l'Entente Canada-Québec relative à l'enseignement dans la langue de la minorité et à l'enseignement de la langue seconde. Ministère de l'Éducation et de l'Enseignement supérieur.