Employability: how important are transferable skills?

Through Salzburg I and II (EUA, 2010) the European Higher Education Area has set the direction of doctoral education as an international process of researcher development and knowledge generation that requires quality assurance, encourages mobility, and enables dissemination and the development of transferable skills.

The European Universities Association (EUA) has pointed to several important new challenges for doctoral education in the future: the risk that the pressure to publish might compromise research integrity, the digital challenge requiring new technical, legal and ethical attitudes, and the fact that research is increasingly international and global which challenges, among other things, the mobility of our researchers (EUA, 2017). All of these add to the existing requirement for research education to provide the link between knowledge generation and knowledge implementation. It is at this point that transferable skills become most important. An international education can enable intercul- tural competence and ethical challenges can introduce new ways of looking at the ownership of knowledge.

Earlier in Chapter 1 we explored the EHEA Framework for Higher Education. This, too, emphasises the importance of developing communication skills, teamwork and a positive attitude towards continuous learning.

What transferable skills might students doing research develop?

One way of analysing this is to look across the framework of five approaches. Table 6.2 shows some of the generic skills that will be useful in almost any walk of life, and which can come from undertaking a significant research project.

The skills shown in Table 6.2 above will be useful for demonstrating competence in almost any interview situation. So the most important thing is to identify examples which substantiate your claim to having a skill and be able to turn it from your example to a generic claim and then to a hypothetical example in your next employer or interviewer’s world.

The language around transferable skills for researchers has been codified most comprehensively by Vitae, a UK-based body that has published the Researcher Development Framework (RDF). It posits that there are four domains for development (knowledge and intellectual abilities, personal effectiveness, research governance and organisation, engagement, influence and impact; see www.vitac.ac.uk/rcscarchcrs-profcssional-devclopmcnt/about-thc- vitae-researcher-development-framework/developing-the-vitae-researcher-devel opment-framework).

Recognising the transferable skills that are being developed

Vitae.ac.uk have created a commercially available online planner for assessing transferable skills and undertook a great deal of work in identifying transferable skills at doctoral level. Many of these can be usefully applied at other curriculum levels as well. In Figure 6.3 the RDF is reproduced in full. Some universities link their transferable/generic skills training closely to the descriptors used by Vitae.

The inner circle refers to the four domains covering the knowledge, behaviours and attributes of researchers. It sets out the wide-ranging knowledge,



Critical thinking


Relationship development

Project planning skills Project management Time management Negotiates for necessary resources Monitors progress

Assimilates professional expertise Becomes a valued team member Communicates persuasively with colleagues

Understands and can work with

different cultural imperatives and values

Makes a logical and persuasive argument Anticipates flaws in assumptions and logic Has forecasting skills and knows the limits of forecasting Problem solving

Able to move into new environments Skilled in communicating to different groups of people

Can make decisions and choose a route forward Assesses own strengths and weaknesses Learns from difficulties. Plans to enhance knowledge and skills

Considered trustworthy Clear values Emotionally intelligent Cares for others Respects and manages personal and

professional boundaries

The Researcher Development Framework

Figure 6.3 The Researcher Development Framework

Source: www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers-professional-development/about-the-vitae-researcher- development-framework/vitae-researcher-development-framework-rdf-full-contenthi-res.jpg intellectual abilities, techniques and professional standards expected to be able to do research, as well as the personal qualities, knowledge and skills to work with others and ensure the wider impact of research. Within each of the domains there are three sub-domains and associated descriptors.

The framework was derived from semi-structured interviews with researchers, literature reviews, reports, sector-wide consultations and expert panel review. Its aim is to identify attributes in a non-judgemental, inclusive and forward- looking manner (Reeves, Denicolo, Metcalfe & Roberts, 2012).

Five approaches to using the Researcher Development Framework in practice

The RDF was designed to be available for higher education institutions in the UK. Many other universities have access to tools on its website. It is possible to use the five approaches to research supervision to suggest different ways of using the RDF within a supervision setting. Table 6.3 makes some suggestions.

Being amember of asmall research group

Much academic research is carried out in small groups, so learning to contribute positively and gain from being in these groups is an important skill. Many groups start by agreeing their ground rules around confidentiality and participation. Although it may sound pedantic, agreeing at the beginning that no one member is going to be allowed to dominate or talk over everyone else is a useful way of averting future trouble. Some supervisors are very skilled at managing the group dynamics and for others it is more challenging. Do not hesitate to ask for help if you feel your group is becoming dysfunctional. If your supervisor has not handled this particular type of problem before, they should be able to find someone who can.

Finding a mentor

Mentoring is a powerful concept for the student seeking emancipation (Pearson & Brew, 2002). There is much literature on mentoring in general and facilitation skills in particular (Lee, 2006, 2007). The mentor is usually seen as a non- judgemental adviser. Mentoring builds upon Rogers’ belief that self-experience and self-discovery are important facets of learning (Morton-Cooper & Palmer, 2000) and it involves acknowledging that adults can move from being dependent to being self-directed, accumulate experiences and create a biography from which they can learn and change. The expected movement is from needing to acquire knowledge and being subject centred to becoming more performance centred. The objective is the application of experience and the development of sound critical thinking abilities.

A mentor can be primary or secondary (Kram, 1985; Freeman, 1998). The secondary mentor has much more of a business-like relationship with their mentee. They concentrate on providing support for career development. They can suggest projects, help to solve work-based problems, provide coaching where they have particular skills and might actively promote their mentee where they think it could be helpful.

The primary mentor can provide a more profound experience and some academics will feel that this goes beyond what they are expected to do. When an emotional bond is developed the mentee is deemed to have a primary mentor



Critical thinking


Relationship development

Establish what courses and tools the careers service provides Get the researcher to read relevant parts of the Vitae.ac.uk website and follow up any relevant courses that the RDF might indicate

Use tools from the RDF website to get the research group or members of your department to plan how to enhance each other's careers potential Read experienced researchers’ profiles. Is there anything helpful to role model?

Examine the principles behind the RDF (see Reeves et al., 2012) and decide whether or not they help career planning and interview skills. Are there alternative approaches to identifying transferable or key attributes that would be more useful?

Encourage the researcher to review all the different lenses to identify where their strengths might be well placed and what areas they might need to develop. The different lenses include: engineering, information literacy, leadership, public engagement, teaching and researcher mobility

Share own experiences of developing an academic career and link them to the RDF. Explore what has changed and what might change in the future

and the approach to supervision is moving towards the next category in the framework - building a relationship of friendship. The strength of the primary mentor is that they provide acceptance and confirmation that the mentee is worthwhile and this leads to personal empowerment. They can help the mentee to learn from a variety of life experiences as well as planning and rehearsing future encounters.

Secondary' mentors are obviously easier to find. Sometimes a relationship starts with more functional, secondary mentoring expectations, and goes on to become extremely fundamental for both parties.

Emancipation as a process implies that you will receive both support and challenge. It is also a process which allows and supports personal transformation; the potential for the research process to be transformative becomes clear when we look at the prerequisites for transformative learning: it is perceived as requiring critical reflection and a disorienting dilemma (Mezirow, 1991; Taylor, 2007).

This element of enabling you to cope, while also giving you information which may disturb and disorientate you, can be challenging for all academics. Some may believe that this period of disorientation needs to be deeply experienced if you are to understand a phenomenon; others may feel that this is cruel and unnecessary' and the dilemma can usually be resolved through discussion about the place of disorientation in higher education. If this is a problem for you as a student doing research, you may need to seek further advice from a trusted member of the academic community' or student support services.

Learning through failure

There is a fine role for failure. As Bandura (1994) noted, if we experience only easy successes we have no opportunity' to develop resilience and emerge stronger through adversity. This extract from an interview below demonstrates this point in practice.

I had a student w'orking on a project that I considered very, vert' good and she was somebody who... was probably better at analysis of data than collecting data and she kept collecting data that just didn’t make sense ... to us. It was becoming clear that she w'as not a great person in the lab, so I thought, oh well ... maybe she is not that good an experimentalist, you know, we w'ill have to teach her how to do things. But it wasn’t that at all, it was just there was something there, in her data that we were just completely missing. We really had to have thought totally, totally differently and we missed it so I feel guilty' about missing it because a group in (another major university), in fact, didn’t miss it ... and as soon as they reported their findings we understood ... exactly why ... it wasn’t working and, you know', she spent nearly tw'o years doing that ... And this frustrated her to no end, she was really unhappy and bitter about it. And yet I think it made her a much stronger scientist, and then she started doing things, other things ok ... we just started doing things that worked more easily and she got her degree ... she was there for six years, I think, two years of her experience was unpleasant, because she wasn’t getting things to work. She came with two of her peers, and came the same year who were just getting everything to work. So she was bound to feel why are things not working? ... But in the long run, you know, I don’t feel that badly, although I recognise and I do feel it myself, the frustrations are something we all have to go through. You know, we have to learn how to deal with this kind of frustration, because she is going to face it again. If she takes a path in her career in science. And, I ... fully expect her to appreciate that in the long run even though she didn’t, she doesn’t now.

A good mentor or supervisor will know how to help a student learn from difficult experiences and from failure. Clutterbuck and Ragins argue that the quality of the relationship is more important than whether the relationship is formal or informal (2002, p. 45). This observation demonstrates yet another blurring of the boundaries, in this case between the emancipatory and relationship approaches.

Mentoring also has its dark side. The uncritical mentee faced with an untrained mentor who is burdened with a lack of self-awareness can be a problem. Berglass (2002) has shown how some coaches ‘gain a Svengali-like hold over both the executives they train and the CEOs they report to’ (p. 91). Darling (1985) coined the term ‘toxic mentors’ and these include avoiders, destroyers and criticisers who would take unfair advantage of their mentees. Egoists could be added to the list. This begins to explain another necessity for training in supervision: academics need to be particularly aware of the dangers of mentoring over issues that they have not fully resolved themselves. The boundaries need to be clearly thought through. The mentoring academic does not direct, they ‘midwife’ the project, dissertation or thesis and it can take some time to understand this position and to develop the skills to perform it.

The limits of the role of mentoring for the research student

A mentor can be an appropriate significant other who can provide honest guidance, support and challenge at the right moments for their mentee. Thus the true mentor does not have to be a ‘supervisor’, and should not be a line manager or an assessor. (Various organisations and professions have appropriated the term ‘mentor’ and applied it in these ways.) The quality of a pure mentoring relationship is one which is voluntarily entered into and where there is already a positive regard on both sides. It can provide a profound learning experience (for both sides). The research supervisor can take a mentoring approach, but because of their organisational role and obligations they may have to manage the conflict of interest that is inherent in adopting this approach.

When is mentoring most beneficial?

Critical incidents can provide rich food for reflection, but often past experiences can be used as a gateway to reveal more about present concerns. The experienced mentor will spot such opportunities to open doors and reveal trends or illuminate blind spots (Egan, 2002). Mentoring is used to help men- tees into a new role or organisation, to fast-track their development, to develop cross-cultural awareness, to aid coping with managing change, to help manage the conflict between the professional role, patient autonomy and organisational demands, to help manage the cloak of defence against emotion and to help those who are seeking explanations of their own perceived inadequacy (Morton-Cooper & Palmer, 2000). However, it is worth emphasising that mentoring is for the well, not for the sick.


The mentoring relationship usually ends at some point, often because the period of study is completed but sometimes there is a problem with the ending. An unaware mentor can ‘cling on’ and the mentee can experience a sensation of wanting to escape and reclaim their life. Regular reviews are necessary in advance to establish when the formal mentoring relationship will close. A friendship or working relationship might then continue, but it would be different. It is easier to mark the separation by meeting in a different place, or agreeing to do something different at a final session.

A mentoring relationship is inherently a professional one. In this chapter we have looked at many aspects of doing research from an emancipator)' perspective. We have covered different approaches to enquiry-based learning, empowering yourself, identifying transferable skills, working in small research groups and finding a mentor. In the next chapter we explore the other side of this line, where the relationship between academic and student becomes more personal and altruistic, energising and rewarding for both parties, yet still stays within appropriate boundaries.

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