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You will find here a collection of contributions of different authors sharing their ideas, views or lessons learnt during their professional development. Please feel encouraged to comment on the contributions and share your experiences on the various topics. If you would like to add your own contribution, please get in contact with us.

Setting up a transferable skills program

When we started a transferable skills training program for doctoral candidates at the University of Vienna in 2009, we started with a thorough research on what is offered in this area at our own university as well as in other universities that could serve us as example. Also the Vitae website and the Vitae researcher development framework provide a good overview on topics although of course not everything fits to every local and budgetary setting. However, most important especially in our discussion with the scientific community were the Salzburg principles and the SET for Success review by Sir Gareth Roberts, the so-called “Roberts report” from the UK Research Councils, both advocating for a transferable skills training as integral part in doctoral education .

Today transferable skills training is (internationally) widely accepted and the Center for Doctoral Studies of the University of Vienna offers between forty to fifty workshops per semester, covering the common topics Academic writing and presenting, rhetoric and communication skills, project and time/self-management as well as proposal writing for funding applications, but also more basic workshops on literature research, reference management tools and how to start and manage a PhD. In our experience, doctoral candidates need the most support in the transition phases, first when they start their PhD as well as later when they prepare their first postdoc applications. Thus, workshops in theses phases or workshops which address a concrete need e.g. How to write a research proposal, are usually much in demand.

Our workshops are all interdisciplinary and open for doctoral candidates and postdocs only, although the latter are much harder to access. Although initially there were doubts whether courses on e.g. academic writing can be offered for doctoral candidates from all different disciplines, it turned out that it is precisely the interdisciplinary and exclusive setting what is much valued by the participants. Many doctoral candidates also use the workshops as platform to get in contact with other PhD students.

Establish clear regulations

1.) Mandatory vs. voluntary
In the early stages of transferable skills training there was much discussion whether these courses should be mandatory or voluntary. Many universities opt for the voluntary approach, and so did the University of Vienna. Based on their individual needs and career plans, doctoral candidates should select those workshops that support them best in their personal and professional development, rather than to ask them to attend a number of workshops which might not be equally important for all of them. Ideally, they also discuss their transferable skills training with their supervisors and include it in their personal and professional development planning.

2.) ECTS credits?
Another point of discussion is whether or not doctoral candidates should receive ECTS credits for the attendance of transferable skills workshops. Again here universities approach this issue differently. Although this point pops-up periodically, especially in the context of making transferable skills training more attractive to doctoral students, we strictly decided against the use of ECTS as we regard the courses as a voluntary offer doctoral candidates may take use of if they need additional support in a particular area.

3.) Clear policy regarding attendance
Although doctoral candidates usually highly appreciate the possibility to get transferable skills training, we also witness a lack of commitment by some doctoral candidates regarding the attendance of workshops they have registered for. Sometimes doctoral candidates also are too ambitious and register for too many courses, which they eventually cannot all attend. This is a very common problem of many institutions that offer trainings in this area, especially if the workshops are a voluntary offer without ECTS. Universities develop different strategies to tackle this issue: some install a small fee, others took an “incentive-approach” and give ECTS for workshops. Our policy is to block doctoral candidates for one semester from the program if they fail to attend at more than two workshops per semester. In any case, a clear communication of regulations and their appropriate implementation avoids many discussions in the long run.

Selecting trainers

In the last decades, the trainer sector in Higher Education has become quite a business. At the beginning we heavily drew on recommendations from other universities as well as from our own HR department which also offers seminars for university staff. The quality of the trainers is crucial to make the program successful. We therefore only employ trainers who have long/good experience with teaching these topics in a university setting and in particular with working with doctoral candidates or academics in general. In addition, all our workshops and trainers get evaluated by the participants to ensure high quality of our courses.

Apart from external trainers, with also established good collaborations with internal and external partners who offer trainings free of charge, e.g. the university library offers workshops on literature research, or funding institutions offer trainings on their particular funding programs. In addition, we pay much attention to the further professional development of staff members of our unit (e.g. train-the-trainer seminars) to increase capacities and expertise which we use for our workshop program.
In conclusion, I would recommend the following when setting up a transferable skills program:

  • Set up a clear strategy and guiding principles
  • Choose excellent trainers
  • Provide a good mixture of workshops with regard to the topics as well as the formats
  • Evaluate your workshops and the program periodically

Recommended Literature:

  • SET for Success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, by Sir Gareth Roberts from the UK Research Councils (2002)
  • Skills Training in Research Degree Programmes. Politics and Practice, ed. by Richard Hinchcliffe, Tony Bromley, Steve Hutchinson, New York 2007
  • Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students, ed. by Susan Carter and Deborah Laurs, New York 2014

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We believe in knowledge-sharing as a competitive advantage and try to achieve this with interactive webinars organised by professionals, for professionals. Our second webinar aimed at professionals who want to set up, improve or reflect on their training offers in transferable skills.

Watch the webinar with Verity Eston and Christian Dumpidak an Transferable Skills Training recorded in November 2018!

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The PRIDE-network Association aims at representing the community of Professionals in Doctoral Education within Europe and beyond.

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