They’re not “transferable skills”; they’re just skills

In response to a miserable academic job market across many disciplines, scholarly societies, institutions, and departments have begun to grapple with their graduate students’ prospects in the non-academic job market. To reassure students, potential employers, and themselves, they tell students that the skills they gain in their graduate programs are transferable, by which they generally mean that, with some additional training, the skills can be used in jobs outside academics.

While usually well meant, this advice perpetuates a common academic view that learning, skills, and engagement with them starts in the academy, properly remains there, and goes elsewhere only if needs must. It’s as though what you learn in graduate school is a collection of mysteries belonging to a guild of skilled tradespeople (still most often tradesmen) rather than a body of knowledge and the tools and techniques to evaluate, develop, store, and communicate it.

The problem isn’t academic self-centeredness, though that is hilarious, eyeroll-inducing, or infuriating, depending on the day, to those of us who have spent time both inside and outside of academics.  The problem with the advice is that it sets up academics as the originator and best use of those skills and any adaptations to other workplaces as necessary at best and lesser at worst. People who are told they can transfer skills to other workplaces are often depressed about not being able to use the skills in their “original” environment and put them to their “proper” use.

A more accurate and constructive view of skills learned in graduate programs is this: they are skills that academics uses in a certain way in a certain environment. They are context-specific applications of what many other people do every day in many other workplaces: assessing problems, imagining solutions, gathering information, using it to solve problems, explaining the value of their solutions to other people, and training other people to do the same things. You can absolutely learn many of those things in graduate school, and you can absolutely learn many of them elsewhere. And if you learn them in one kind of workplace, you can apply them in another, because they belong to no particular workplace. Will you need to tweak them a bit, or a lot, depending on where you first encounter them? Probably. But you would need to do that anyway as tools and techniques adapt and change and bodies of knowledge grow and how people absorb information changes.

The secondary message behind “transferrable skills” is that graduate school remains worth doing even without academic job at the end of the process, because what you learn there can be used outside academics. Whether or not it is worth it is something you will assess for yourself depending on your personal circumstances and your field, but don’t believe that it is worth it because you are getting skills you can’t get elsewhere. They are just skills, not transferable skills, and there are many ways to acquire them and many workplaces in which to use them.

Good luck!