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How to plan, monitor and record skills developed in research

Why skills development is important

Employers expect graduates to have transferable skills which are not only directly associated with their main topic of study but also of a more general nature, appropriate for a wider range of work and for working effectively with others. This is true for all graduates irrespective of whether they were students on doctoral programmes such as the PhD or undergraduate programmes. What follows offers suggestions, advice, tips and general help. It includes how to recognise a skilled individual; how to recognise one's own skills; and personal development planning (PDP).

How to recognise a skilled individual

Being skilled carries with it a sense of satisfaction at a job well done. Broadly speaking, a skill is the ability to do something well within minimal time and with minimal effort.

A skilled typist, for example, can type a report quickly and accurately, probably without even looking at the keyboard, whereas an unskilled person would have to keep looking for keys and would probably press the wrong ones by mistake. The typing would be awkward, would require excessive concentration and would take an excessive time. It might still get done eventually, but the final product would almost certainly have an amateur look about it. Typing is an example of a skill which is largely manual, but skills can also be interpersonal and intellectual. For example a skilled speaker can comparatively effortlessly hold an audience spellbound; an unskilled speaker might have a go, but the task would consume a great deal of preparation time and emotional energy and would probably not be received particularly well by the audience anyway.

Definition of PDP

'[PDP is] a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development’

(QAA 2004, para. 27)

The straight division of 'skilled' and 'unskilled' is of course an over-simplification, as there are varying degrees of skills-proficiency. However, knowing what is involved in a skill is never the same as being skilled.

How to recognise your own skills

In order to extend and develop your skill-set it is important to recognise the skills which you already have. To some extent, all students develop skills as a natural part of progressing through their studies and receiving guidance and feedback from their supervisors*. However, unless students are specifically alerted to the fact, few seem to appreciate the richness of what they acquire this way. Once alerted, the skills can be built on and readily developed further.

A digest of a framework for a transferable skill-set for MPhil/PhD students

All MPhil/PhD graduates who are adequately able and were properly supervised should be able to claim skills in the specialist research-related aspects of their MPhil/PhD topic. The extent to which these skills are 'transferable' to employment will depend on the individual concerned, nature of the MPhil/PhD work and the requirements of the employment.

In addition, there are numerous skills which are more 'transferable', which employers would understand and value, and which it is reasonable to expect from PhD and possibly MPhil graduates, over and above those transferable skills which have received so much attention at undergraduate level:

  1. All MPhil/PhD students will, by the time they complete, have spent two, three or more years on a research programme, taking it from first inception through its many and various highs and lows. This is no mean feat and should develop the transferable skill of being able to see any prolonged task or project through to completion. It should include to varying extents which depend on the discipline and the research topic the abilities: to plan, to allocate resources of time and money, to trouble-shoot, to keep up with one's subject, to be flexible and able to change direction where necessary, and to be able to think laterally and creatively to develop alternative approaches. The skill of being able to accommodate to change is highly valued by employers who need people who can anticipate and lead change in a changing world, yet resist it where it is only for its own sake.

  2. All MPhil/PhD students should have learned to set their work in a wider field of knowledge. The process requires extensive study of literature and should develop the transferable skills of being able to sift through large quantities of information, to take on board the points of view of others, challenge premises, question procedures and interpret meaning.

  3. All MPhil/PhD students have to be able to present their work to the academic community, minimally through seminars, progress reports and the thesis. Seminars should develop the oral communication skills of being effective and confident in making formal presentations, in intervening in meetings, participating in group discussions, dealing with criticism and presenting cases. Report and thesis-writing should develop the transferable written communication skills needed for composing effective reports, manuals and press releases and for summarising bulky documents. These communication skills should go far beyond the level acquired during a first degree.

  4. The road to completion of an MPhil/PhD can be a lonely one, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Yet the skills of coping with isolation are 'transferable' and can be highly valued by employers. They include: self-direction; self-discipline; self-motivation; resilience; tenacity and the abilities to prioritise and juggle a number of tasks at once.

  5. MPhil/PhD students working on group projects, which is most common in the sciences, should be able to claim advanced team-working skills.

Further examples of transferable skills are many and various and depend on the interests of the student and the nature of the research programme. Possibilities include advanced computer literacy, facility with the Internet, the skills of being able to teach effectively, to negotiate access and resources, to network with others, to use project management techniques, and to find one's way around specialist libraries or archives.

[extracted with minor modifications from Cryer, P 'Transferable skills, marketability and lifelong learning: the particular case of postgraduate research students', Studies in Higher Education, 23, 2, 207-216, 1998.]

The extract at the side suggests a framework for the sorts of skills that are most likely to be developed during an extended research programme. The word 'framework' is used there advisedly, because all the skills could be described differently, summarised, elaborated or subdivided. It is important to make adaptations yourself in order to make the terminology more relevant to you and your field of study. All the skills are more sophisticated and have a wider scope than those which first degree graduates can normally claim.

Personal Development Planning (PDP)

It is common practice for institutions to offer skills-development to their research students. Although the schemes differ in detail from one institution to another and possibly from one field of study to another, they all provide some sort of framework by which students can monitor, build on and reflect on their personal development. The schemes are widely known as 'Personal Development Planning' or PDP.

In the definition of PDP - see the inset - the words 'structured', 'supported' and 'process' are not included lightly.

PDP is not a one-off activity. It is a process because it takes place over time. It is supported in that advice and training activities are on hand during the process. It is structured in that it is tied to phases of the research programme or curriculum, and is rigorously documented. If the structure and support are not there, the procedure is not genuine PDP. So no student can sign up to PDP in its pure form without being in a group, department, or institution which supports it. That is of course no reason why students working in isolation should not adopt what they can of its precepts.

book: The Research Student's Guide to Success, edn 3

The webmaster's book for research students

Students will probably be introduced to PDP at their induction where they will be provided with templates of some sort for documenting the process. These may be paper based, on-line or in the form of text files or log books, and they will facilitate looking backwards in a reflective mode and forwards in a planning mode as well as recording achievement. Each student is expected to take the initiative for keeping the documentation up-to-date, although some records will be kept by the professionals who are overseeing the PDP. In some cases these are the individual supervisors*, and in other cases they are dedicated PDP staff. There will be regular meetings with professionals, training needs analyses and opportunities for reflection and training.

Out of the training needs analyses will emerge lists of requirements for particular training. In theory, students only have to make a good case for attending a training event for it to be funded. Limits on financial grounds do not always present major obstacles where institutions receive dedicated pots of money for students who are funded by the UK Research Councils, and institutions try not to be divisive for their other students. In practice, too, existing funds may not be taken up as much as they might be due to the constraints of students' time. Part-time students seem particularly loathe to take time out for training.

PDP generates various documents. Because schemes differ in detail across institutions, it is impossible to generalise about what these documents may be. The following are offered as a broad outline and for guidance only, and are not necessarily comprehensive. If you are participating in a PDP scheme and find a lack of correlation between your documents and these, it is probably because of different terminology or because some documents are contained within others.

The preparation of PDP documents should aid students' reflections on their personal and professional development; prepare them for lifelong learning generally and for their on-going personal and professional development in the world of work; and form a basis for eventual job applications. With respect to job applications, evidence of willingness and ability to learn, team working and records of achievement are particularly important.

There is a section on planning the research in the supervisors' section, which students should also find informative.

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.