Cornell University

Transferable Skills

As a graduate student, you have probably grown accustomed to identifying yourself by labels, such as “I am a PhD student in rural sociology.” These labels, such as “PhD student” and “rural sociology,” typically give a clear message of your background and training in an academic environment. If you are considering a job outside of academia, however, you may have discovered that many jobs do not require a PhD or research experience in your particular field. Instead, most employers seek specific skills or competencies that you have acquired during the process of getting your graduate degree in a particular discipline.  

When considering a career outside of academia, you will need to think beyond the academic labels and academic signifiers of success, such as the number of publications you have or invited talks you gave. Instead, focus on the skills you used to earn your degree that will be necessary to perform a particular job; these skills are your transferable skills. These skills are not limited to just your research or teaching experience, so think broadly. Did you volunteer somewhere and, if so, did you acquire leadership experience or additional communication skills? Have you informally edited or proofread your colleagues’ manuscripts or dissertations? If so, perhaps you developed copy-editing skills and the ability to provide constructive feedback.

Understanding Your Transferable Skills

There are many approaches to understand what transferable skills and career interests that you have. One approach is to take an assessment such as SkillScan, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or StrengthsQuest, which can help you identify your skills and potential careers using those skills.

Another approach is to analyze your previous experiences to identify what skills you used or acquired. The following list is a small sample of transferable skills that you may have used during your graduate experience.

Research and Analytic Skills

  • Locate and assimilate new information rapidly
  • Understand complex information and synthesize it
  • Reach independent conclusions and defend them
  • Analyze and solve problems

Communication Skills

  • Write clearly at different levels, from abstracts to book-length manuscripts
  • Edit and proofread
  • Speak before large groups
  • Convey complex information to non-expert audiences

Interpersonal Skills

  • Leadership skills (lab or classroom)
  • Diplomacy (a survival skill in graduate school)
  • Ability to accept criticism
  • Ability to cope with and manage different personalities
  • Ability to navigate complex environments
  • Persuasion skills (e.g., grant proposals, negotiation within your department)
  • Consensus-building skills (e.g., with your department/committee)
  • Ability to handle complaints (e.g., from students about grades)

Organization and Management

  • Manage a project (your dissertation)
  • Maintain records
  • Organize and plan events (programs, panels)
  • Motivate others to participate

Supervision Skills

  • Evaluated others’ performance (e.g., graded exams or papers)
  • Monitored or oversaw the work of others in a lab or classroom

Skills and Qualities Needed to Advance to Candidacy and Complete Your Dissertation

  • Intellectual strength
  • Perform under pressure
  • Meet deadlines
  • Focus, tenacity, stamina, and discipline
  • See a task through to completion

Entrepreneurial Skills

  • Work independently
  • Acquire funding (e.g., write grant proposals)
  • Manage a budget