Developing Transferable Skills

Find opportunities to develop transferrable skills, then...

... practice, practice, practice! 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 practice these skills, such as submitting an essay to a journal, joining a startup, or holding an executive position in an extracurricular group.

Identify skills to develop using the Individual Development Framework

McGill’s Individual Development Framework identifies skills key to student success and well-being. All SKILLSETS events are tagged according to this framework in order to help students and postdocs easily identify which offerings to explore. Access a printable PDF of the framework.

Given 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.

Transferable skills commonly honed through graduate studies:

  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

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.

SKILLSETS offers workshops and events focused on topics like:

  1. Teaching
  2. Research management
  3. Supervision
  4. Applying for fellowships and funding

Find opportunities to practice 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 practice these skills. For some skills, you may find opportunities in your day-to-day academic work. For others, taking a role on a committee, volunteering for a professional association, or nurturing a hobby might provide opportunities to develop skills. Some examples are listed below (Polziehn, 2011).


  • 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


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


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

Written Communication

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

Oral Communication

  • Presentations at conferences
  • Public speaking competitions like 3MT (3 Minute Thesis)

How would you describe your skill set?

The skills learned during graduate studies are highly transferable, but can often feel difficult to describe in non-research terms. If you were describing what you do best to someone unfamiliar with academic research, what would you say? 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. Talking to PhDs currently working outside of academia can help supervisees and supervisors learn to better communicate their skillset in non-academic contexts.


The TRaCE McGill project interviewed over 100 McGill PhD graduates about the work they do now, and the skills they use in their every-day work. Many PhDs working outside of the academic sector reported in interviews that they still use the skills they developed during their graduate programs, even if they no longer work directly in their area of subject matter expertise.

PhD graduate we interviewed shared how they use their skills in translating research findings for court cases, policy discussions, in business, and for the general public. Some graduates noted that they carried over soft skills and project management skills from their doctoral work into their current careers. Others commented that doctoral research equipped them to be versatile, and to teach themselves new skills.

Supervisees and supervisors can explore the TRaCE McGill narrative archive to learn more about the skills that served PhD grads well post-graduation, and the skills they wished their programs had helped them develop.

Supervisors can connect supervisees with former students and/or colleagues working in fields a supervisee is interested in to learn what types of skills and experiences they should aim to develop to succeed in that career.

Supervisees can consider reaching out to alumni for career conversations, through either the TRaCE McGill website or programs like McGill Connect.

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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