Do PhDs have transferable skills?

transferable skills

Have you ever wondered if you possess any “transferable skills” as a graduate student or postdoc? If so, you’re not alone. The moment we see this term many of us become uncertain. Questions start to creep into our inquiring minds! What are transferable skills? How do I identify them? How do I develop them? As trainees, most of us are so engrossed in our research that we fail to realize we possess many transferable skills. It is essential that we identify and develop these skills for a successful transition into our dream jobs after graduation. Here’s a quick guide for graduate students and postdocs to help identify and develop transferable skills.

First, why are transferable skills important?

In today’s job market, a successful job candidate stands out in the applicant pool not by just listing accomplishments, but by identifying how their own experiences and skills match the specific job requirements.

Now, what are transferable skills?

Transferable skills are a set of qualities that can be transferred from one job to another. For example, problem-solving is a common skill that most PhDs acquire during graduate training that can be transferred to a new job in any field.

Top seven transferable skills for PhDs

Most graduate students and postdocs possess abilities that fit within the following seven main transferable skill areas.

  1. Communication
  2. Creativity and innovation
  3. Critical thinking
  4. Collaboration and teamwork
  5. Leadership and mentoring
  6. Problem-solving and decision making
  7. Project management

How do I identify the transferable skills I possess?

First, make a list of skills you have acquired as a graduate trainee or postdoc performing various tasks, and come up with specific examples. Then match each acquired skill to one or more specific transferable skills. Here are some examples.

  1. Communication

Graduate students and postdocs tend to have good oral and written communication skills. Many of us present posters and give talks about our research at conferences, lab meetings, etc., which are examples of good oral communication skills. Many of us are also involved in writing papers, which fits well into written communication skills. Other communication skills can be obtained through outreach activities, communicating research to the general public, writing blogs, etc.

  1. Creativity and innovation

There is always creativity and innovation involved in designing research projects (e.g., coupling two different methods to answer a research query or developing a new technique to improve an existing one).

  1. Critical thinking

Being able to analyze and evaluate the data in research articles as well as in your own research projects to reach conclusive results makes PhDs excellent critical thinkers.

  1. Collaboration and teamwork

Graduate students and postdocs often work in a team-based lab setting and some of us also collaborate with researchers in other labs to accomplish the goals of a project.

  1. Leadership and mentoring

Many of us supervise and train undergrads, other graduate students, and technicians. This kind of training helps us gain leadership and mentoring experience.

  1. Problem-solving and decision making

Graduate student and postdoc life is filled with problems in research, experiments, etc. We get trained to tackle such situations by developing our problem-solving and decision-making skills.

  1. Project management

Graduate students and postdocs manage projects, including designing experiments, looking for resources, managing timelines, and meeting deadlines.

How do I develop or improve transferable skills during graduate school?

One way to develop/improve these skills is to first recognize them and then rate them on a scale to identify your strengths and weaknesses. The next step is to fill in the gaps and strengthen your skills by gaining more experience, either in the skill sets mentioned or through other extra-curricular activities such as getting involved in ASCB through the Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS), local science groups, organizations in universities, etc.

Take the opportunity during your graduate student and postdoc training to work toward gaining and further developing your transferable skills.

About the Author:


Sumana Sundaramurthy is a graduate student in David Pruyne’s Lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY. She studies the roles of formins during muscle development using Caenorhabditis elegans as a model. Email: sundaras@upstate.edu. Twitter: @ranjusunda