If you’ve worked in a particular area for a long time, you may feel you’ve pigeon-holed yourself and are now finding it hard to see how the skills you’ve developed in one context might be transferable to another. What transferable skills do you actually have?
This is a common problem faced by people in all sorts of career areas and is a particular challenge for those who have been working in academia as PhD or postdoctoral researchers, and are now thinking about pursuing a non-academic career.
The good news is that employers are willing to consider people from different backgrounds. They have an area of work that needs to be looked after and they need to find someone who has the expertise to do that.
Therefore, so long as you can demonstrate that you’ve dealt with similar challenges in the past and produced the sort of outcomes that are needed, even if those challenges have been in a different context, you have a good chance of being taken seriously. Even more so if, in addition to providing evidence of your capabilities, you’ve crafted a good story to explain why you’re interested in that particular role in that new context.
In this article I’ll explain what transferable skills are, and offer a few suggestions for how you can identify them.
What are skills?
Before we get to transferable skills, the first question to consider is: What are skills? The World Economic Forum defines skills as ‘the capabilities needed to complete a task, and therefore a job’. But that limits the concept to work; we use skills in every area of life. A more general definition therefore might be along the lines of: ‘A skill is something that you can do that enables you to get stuff done.’
Skills group together in all sorts of categories such as employability skills, transferable skills, soft skills, leadership skills, relationship skills, teaching skills, career management skills, parenting skills, etc. And they are described using verbs, for example: writing, designing, cooking, managing, driving, computer programming, farming, analysing, etc..
Hard skills is a phrase used to describe job-specific or technical skills, i.e. steps, techniques & processes that you have to learn in order to deliver specific outcomes. Examples might be: driving, using a word-processing package on a computer, producing month-end accounts, making a TV programme, tree surgery, carrying out a safety risk assessment, etc.
Soft skills is a term often used for those skills that are not technical or job-related. They generally help you to work effectively with others. Examples include: communication skills, decision-making skills, leadership skills, team-working skills, problem-solving skills, time-management skills, listening skills, etc.
The link between soft skills and strengths
Some soft skills may come more naturally to you than others. For example, you may be a great leader or communicator but find empathising or focusing on detail hard to do. Innate talents are often described as ‘strengths’ and can be measured using an online psychometric tool called the CliftonStrengths® assessment.
So where does that leave ‘transferable’ skills?
Transferable skills are skills and abilities that can be used across different domains of life both personal and professional. They include things like:
- Written & verbal communication skills
- Organisational skills
- Research skills
- Project management skills
- Numeracy skills
- Listening skills
- Strategic thinking skills
- Self-care and self-management skills
- Information technology skills
How can you identify your transferable skills?
There are three main ways in which you can identify your transferable skills.
The first of these is self-reflection which could involve doing one or more of the following:
- Drawing a timeline showing your life/career so far with key accomplishments marked along it, and asking yourself what hard and soft skills you were you using at each point.
- Keeping a work diary and reflecting on the tasks you’re doing each day/week and the types of skill you’re using in each one.
- If you’ve done a PhD: looking back over the last few years and reflecting on roles you’ve had (such as researcher, teacher, conference organiser, student representative) along with the responsibilities associated with those roles. What tasks were associated with those roles and what skills did you use to carry them out?
A second approach to identifying transferable skills is to complete a self-assessment exercise or questionnaire. For example:
- If you choose to work with a career coach, you might be asked to undertake a card sort exercise using cards that each have a different skill written on them. You may group the cards into piles relating to skills you think you’re good at, ok at, and not good at.
- Alternatively, you could do a Google search for ‘online skills assessment’ and complete one of the questionnaires that appears in the search results. You’ll probably be asked to say how much this or that statement sounds like you. At the end, you’ll receive a report that lists the skills you’ve indicated you’re good at.
A third way to identify transferable skills is to look at job descriptions and person specifications. This is especially helpful if you’re looking to change career and are concerned that your current skills are too specialised. Researching jobs in this way gives you insights into the skills and personal attributes that are needed in a particular type of role in a particular context that interests you. Armed with that insight, you can ask yourself whether you already tick those boxes and, if not, what action you can take to address any gaps.
Identify your motivated skills
With all of the above, a key ingredient is enjoyment. Most people mid-career are competent at deploying all sorts of skills many of which are transferable from one context to another, but some of those skills will feel a lot more enjoyable than others largely because they involve using innate abilities/strengths that come naturally.
If fulfilling work is what you’re after, it makes sense to identify which skills those are and find ways to use them more.
Here’s how you do that: if you’ve engaged with any of the exercises above, you will by now have a list of skills that you think you’re good at. Now, take another look at that list and divide the skills into groups for ‘I enjoy this a lot’, ‘I enjoy this somewhat’, or ‘I don’t enjoy this’.
Those skills that you’re good at and enjoy a lot are your motivated skills. They are the ones to focus on if you’re hoping to make positive changes to your career.
If there are any skills that you enjoy a lot but sense you’re not so good at, those are the ones to develop.
And if there are any that you don’t enjoy and feel you’re not actually that good at, then make sure you steer clear of jobs requiring that sort of expertise.
Of course, no job is perfect and you may be required to do certain things as part of your role that use don’t particularly enjoy. But the sort of analysis you’ve done above will enable you to be more discerning about which jobs to apply for and which ones to avoid.
The ‘so what’ factor
It’s worth noting that making sense of the results of your skills research can be easier said than done. There’s often a ‘so what?’ factor that people come up against when doing career exercises independently: you’ve got the list of skills (or interests, values, personality traits, etc.) in front of you and aren’t sure what to do with it. Talking your findings through with a careers professional can help you to:
- join the dots
- build confidence
- gain clarity of direction
- get better at articulating what it is you’ve got to offer to employers
Building a strengths-based career
Skills are just one part of the puzzle that makes up your professional identity. The other pieces include career needs and aspirations, strengths, vocational orientation, interests, personality, values and impact. Doing some reflective work on all of these elements in discussion with a careers professional can help you to build a career around your strengths.
Other resources to help you
The Skills You Need website provides definitions of just about any skill you care to name…
If you’re a PhD or postdoctoral researcher, Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework provides an overview of the skills that you are likely to have developed through conducting academic research. The Employability Lens on the RDF picks out some of those skills that could be viewed as transferable to other contexts.
If you’re thinking you might need help with this work, do get in touch. We can schedule a taster session to explore what you’re hoping to change in your career and consider what support you might need to achieve that.