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Transferring your transferable skills

15 October 2021

Taking time to identify the valuable skills you have developed throughout your educational and professional career can help open up additional career opportunities.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of career advice articles contributed by Physics Today’s partners at the American Institute of Physics Career Network.

You may have heard about “transferable” skills. But what are they? Do you have any? And how do you transfer them?

As the term implies, transferable skills are things you have learned how to do in one context that you can take and apply in a completely different context. For example, while earning a PhD in physics, you may have learned how to analyze vast amounts of data from your experiments by finding patterns and correlations. You can apply that same skill to other data sets, such as large financial data sets in the banking industry. By taking the time to identify your core skills and finding other places where they can be useful, you can open up a new world of career possibilities.

It can be difficult to know where to begin, but fortunately, there is research to guide you. In a 2017 paper in PLOS One, researchers surveyed 8099 STEM PhDs, who reported that they had acquired a number of important career skills during their graduate training—“potentially more than trainees and program leaders currently appreciate.” Some transferable skills the participants said they acquired during their graduate work were as follows:

  • Discipline-specific knowledge
  • Gathering and interpreting information
  • Data analysis
  • Oral and written communication
  • Decision making and problem solving
  • Ability to learn quickly
  • Project management
  • Envisioning a mission and setting goals

Those skills were useful no matter what career path they chose. A few skills were seen as more important for research-intensive careers: creativity and innovative thinking, career planning, and the ability to work on a team. Other skills, such as time management and oral and written communication, were rated as more important for careers that were not research intensive.

Skills acquired during doctoral programs.
Respondents to a survey of science PhDs reported that a variety of transferable skills they had acquired in graduate school proved useful in both research-intensive and non-research-intensive careers. Credit: Adapted from M. Sinche et al., PLOS One 12, e0185023 (2017)

It is important not only to identify your transferable skills but also to know which skills employers are seeking. Recently Joseph Rios of the University of Minnesota and the Educational Testing Service and colleagues examined more than 142 000 job advertisements on two recruiting websites and ranked the skills that were solicited by number of mentions. They repeated the exercise a year later with 120 000 job advertisements, with similar results. Oral communication was the single most requested skill, mentioned in more than 25% of the advertisements. This was followed by written communication skills, in more than 20% of the ads. Other frequently requested skills were problem solving, communication, social intelligence, self-direction, critical thinking, time management, and ethics. Problem-solving skills were requested significantly more for STEM fields than for social science jobs, and the percentage of advertisements requesting collaboration skills increased with degree level.

There are many more transferable skills that weren’t identified in those studies. How do you identify yours?

A great way to start is by looking back over your career and your most significant accomplishments. Suppose you founded a journal club in your department. Make a list of the skills you used to do that: project management, negotiating for resources, identification of a target audience, promotion and marketing, setting a schedule, delegating, and so on. Once you do this for 5 or 10 accomplishments, you will start seeing some skills appear repeatedly. Those are probably the ones you are best at and enjoy using. Providing a potential employer with specific examples of when you used them will go a long way toward convincing an employer you have the required abilities.

It does not matter to the employer if you got paid while you were building your transferable skills. Leadership may have been part of your job description, or it may have been something you took on without official authority. It’s actually harder to lead without authority, so make sure to recognize times you took the initiative and got things done without a formal title or assignment. Think about what you did to lead and engage others, and be prepared to discuss what you were able to accomplish because of your leadership.

If you lack a particular transferable skill that would make you more attractive to employers, find a way to acquire it either as part of your current job or as a volunteer. For example, if you’re looking to move into industry but have few financial management skills, find a way to develop them. Perhaps you could become treasurer of a local nonprofit organization, take over the ordering responsibilities for your laboratory, or organize a fundraiser. Seek out opportunities to manage budgets and deliver on projects with profit and loss considerations to prove you can do it.

Taking some time to identify the transferable skills you already have and the accomplishments they have led to is a great way to see how far you have come in your career. Organizing your professional story and seeking out experience where needed will help you advance even more.

Lisa M. Balbes has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for almost 30 years. She has published more than 300 articles on career development for scientists and given more than 300 presentations in the US and abroad. She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).

Homepage photo: Data analysis; credit: Dean Calma/IAEA, CC BY 2.0

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