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Skills and development

Participate in a SKILLSETS workshop on transferable skills, then...

... practise, practise, practise! Find other opportunities to perfect what you've learned through SKILLSETS, skills such as communication, knowledge translation, and ethical conduct. To practise writing, submit an essay to a journal. To practise teamwork, join a startup or a sports organization. The possibilities are varied and plentiful, as the documents mentioned below indicate (Polziehn, 2011; Rose, 2012).


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

Given the current trend that only a relatively small percentage of PhD graduates will find traditional tenure-track positions, supervisors and supervisees at all levels of study should pay attention to transferable or workplace readiness skills in addition to academic skills. See the table entitled Skills for graduate students [.pdf] adapted from Rose (2012) for a list of skills and traits such as

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Communicating with the media
  • Time management
  • Networking, and more.

If you think you might be expected to demonstrate skills in public speaking, community engagement, or administration, look for opportunities to practise. Make a list of your activities and interests that might lead to opportunities:

  • Creative writing, e.g. with a poetry reading or by introducing another writer to learn public speaking
  • Volunteering, e.g. at a shelter or with a non-governmental organization to learn community engagement
  • Sports, e.g. coaching a hockey team or practising yoga to learn about management

What can you imagine yourself doing beyond academia?

And how would that change if you stopped at a Master's degree instead of continuing to a PhD or beyond? 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. In fact, the skills are highly transferable.


Student 1: I was trained … during my PhD where my supervisor’s goal was to produce (a) well-rounded researcher at the end of her PhD or master, so we were trained in like very strong scientific writing, very strong analytical and logical way of developing our ideas and everything.

Student 2: I’m pretty confident in my skills so even if worst case the company doesn’t work out and I don’t get a PhD, I still have a very good skill set, I’m very employable.

These two students touched upon the different kinds of skills that doctoral students acquire during their studies. While research skills are often emphasized, other skills (such as teaching) should not be neglected. The second student above, for example, mentioned a “skill set” that is not necessarily related to conducting research but makes him or her employable.

Different skills for different degrees

Each degree is a little different from the others. The following documents help students understand the uniqueness of their degrees:

The University of Adelaide in Australia has a Research Skill Development Framework website to guide graduate students’ research practice and supervisors’ evaluation of student research. It focuses on the development of research independence. The framework identifies five levels of research based on the degree of student independence (the fifth level being the highest):

  1. Prescribed research
  2. Bounded research
  3. Scaffolded research
  4. Student-initiated research
  5. Open research

Also, six “facets of research” are identified:

  • Embark and clarify
  • Find and generate
  • Evaluate and reflect
  • Organize and manage
  • Analyze and synthesize
  • Communicate and apply

The UK-based Vitae also has a Researcher development framework, which encourages researchers, including graduate students, to develop a broad range of skills and to think in terms of ongoing professional development that will carry on into future employment. The listed abilities go beyond research to include, for instance, personal effectiveness and career management, so that research students are prepared for non-academic as well as academic careers.

The domains of the Vitae framework are:

  • Knowledge and intellectual abilities (knowledge base; cognitive abilities; creativity)
  • Personal effectiveness (personal qualities; self-management; professional and career development)
  • Research governance and organization (professional conduct; research management; finance, funding and resources)
  • Engagement, influence and impact (working with others; communication and dissemination; engagement and impact)

Identifying academic skills vs. transferable skills

Supervisees and supervisors usually have a well-developed ability to explain their knowledge and describe their academic skills; however, at the end of their graduate degrees, students often cannot easily articulate the transferable skills they have learned while acquiring academic skills. Non-academic employers are becoming a source of terminology for identifying transferable skills in academia.


Different universities and supervisors have developed ways in which they assist research candidates to identify the knowledge, skills and experience they bring to their research program and where they might need to develop additional skills and knowledge. Recognizing what they bring with them is important for all students, and it is particularly critical for many of our older students, who may have been in the workforce for many years, brought up their families, etc.

However, the development and implementation of skills at the doctoral level is not as simple as it might seem. One issue is that, despite substantial work on the development of skills, it is common for students at the end of their research program to find it very difficult to identify the generic 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.

Any analysis of students' training needs should take into account the broader personal and professional skills required for their future career, as well as their immediate research skills requirements. The 2013 McGill survey of PhD graduation outcomes ranked the popularity of skills needed on the job based on the tri-council "Statement of Principles on Key Professional Skills for Researchers" (2007). The three most popular skills of McGill PhD graduates were:

  1. critical and creative thinking
  2. personal effectiveness (e.g., presentation, self-evaluation, networking, stress and time management)
  3. integrity and ethical content
Successful graduates have and need these skills. In the international context, look for example to the UK's Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Academy, which publish skills-related guides and studies.


The text of this page was based on:

  • 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. et al. (2011). Graduate students’ teaching experiences improve their methodological research skills. Science 333(6045), 1037-1039.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Polziehn, R. (2011). Skills expected from graduate students in search of employment in academic and non-academic settings. Edmonton: University of Alberta.
  • Rose, M. (2012). Graduate student professional  development: A survey with recommendations. Canadian Association for Graduate Studies.

Workshops, career planning, and more

Graduate programs should help students develop various skills related to research:

Students should receive guidance and encouragement in areas relating to their growth in scholarship, professional development and career planning. Examples may include, where appropriate, reporting research, writing abstracts, preparing papers for conference presentation or for publication, writing grant and fellowship applications, conducting a job search, and preparing for job interviews.

SKILLSETS, run by Teaching and Learning Services (TLS), provides workshops addressing a range of skills that graduate students need to acquire. Supervisors and students are encouraged to check their event calendar regularly. TLS also provides workshops for professors and clinicians that can help them in their supervision of graduate students.

The Career Planning Services (CaPS) provides career development advice and workshops.

For other resources for honing research-related skills, see the Research and International Relations webpages on Ethics and compliance and Research integrity.


Acknowledgements: Original content prepared by Gerlese Akerlind and Margaret Kiley, CEDAM, ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2011. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Shuhua Chen and Joel Deshaye, May 2013, and updated in February 2014.