Transferable Skills: A Fool’s Gold?

April 18, 2016 | Matthew Tibble.

A recent post on the brand-new SGSAH blog highlights a growing trend amongst those seeking to acquire ‘transferable skills’, namely,  finding the component parts of your everyday activities in order to apply them in new fields and make them applicable to whatever jobs you apply for. As the piece points out, correctly, transferable skills are now essential criteria for success on the increasingly diverse job market. But this transferable skills trend also encourages a tendency to forget that, at best, these skills are supplementary to targeted, job-specific knowledge or experience.

Transferable skills can be found almost anywhere, and that is at once a boon and a disadvantage. Unfortunately, getting these transferable skills does tend to leave you with a set of abilities that, say, most other people in the Arts and Humanities can claim to have acquired. Sure, dressing your CV up is important, and it can help you stand out to a certain extent, but if everyone who attends lectures or seminars, tutors a bit, and performs their independent thesis research breaks down their daily activities into these ‘transferable’ parts, then there’s the risk that we all end up looking interchangeable – adaptable to any situation or job but specific or expert to none. It could also highlight a lack of tenacity for a specific or ideal role.


Understandably the challenging job market faced by today’s doctoral students is daunting to many, and it is tempting to showcase as many skills as you can to cover the widest possible base; yet it’s important to be confident in the key abilities you do have. Part of achieving that dream job may well involve acquiring a very specific set of skills, unique to you, and honed to achieving your target – a set of skills not diluted with transferables but based on the kind of abilities that make you the only candidate possible in the eyes of your employer. It’s not about completely leaving behind the transferable skills. Undoubtedly they are valuable in the eyes of employers – they leave you unrestricted to a particular task and show a level of adaptability [1], but they don’t qualify you for a particular field. Interpreting traditionally academic skills in order to make them legible to a non-academic profession is a useful bonus – but we might do well to remember it as exactly that, a bonus.

Nothing exceeds having knowledge or experience directly applicable to the industry that you intend to proceed to, and acquiring this is a process that makes you unique. Part of being a doctoral researcher is having the freedom to develop yourself in a professional capacity, and built into the time you allow yourself to complete the thesis should be periods devoted to acquiring the experience required in your ‘next step’, or to tailoring your research with a view beyond the final submission. This is where internships, volunteering, workshops, and masterclasses come in. Find the industry you want to be in and associate yourself with it in a deliberate and targeted capacity. Get some skills that are quantifiable and, most importantly, certifiable.

Finding work-specific qualifications whilst in an academic environment isn’t as hard as it sounds either. Funding bodies such as the AHRC and SGSAH regularly offer professional training opportunities through workshops, summer schools, and internships, and they aren’t exclusive to funded students. You’ll also find a wealth of similar opportunities advertised through your home institution. Audit those obscure classes that might make you stand out to an employer. Want to work in an academic publishing house but your current thesis is on pre-16th century literature? Pick up a marketing module in the Business School, or one on copyright management or contract negotiation in the Law School. There’s nothing stopping you, and to an employer it shows a drive more tenacious than simply adapting a standard academic CV with a bit of tutoring and a couple of minor publications to show that you have transferable skills such as ‘analysing large quantities of data’ and ‘communicating research effectively’. These vanilla skills should complement your striking, industry-specific dashes of experience and knowledge acquired during your doctoral career.

About Matthew Tibble

I am currently writing a PhD on ‘Mirrors for Princes’ and methods of counsel during the sixteenth century or, as I like to call it: ‘How to tell Henry VIII he is misbehaving without getting beheaded’. As well as running this site, I have also written for Doing History In Public and have a keen interest in editing and the publishing industry.

Article edited by Bridget Moynihan.

Works Cited

Denicolo, Pam and Reeves, Julie. Developing Transferable Skills (London, 2013), p. 6.

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