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My Degree & Skills

Academic and industry skills: are they the same?

Academic and industry skills: are they the same?

There is a tendency for academics to believe they don’t have any skills. There are a number of reasons for this. In part, this is because of academia’s focus on knowledge, and the idea that skills must be “practical” and tactile (a plumber has skills to fix a toilet, for example). It is also related to the difficulty many graduate students have in seeing themselves as professionals. Another issue is the fact that academics tend to define themselves by what they know — their discipline, their areas of expertise.

A skill, on the other hand, is something you can DO, which makes it different from something that you KNOW. You can DO things with both your body and your brain.

There are different kinds of skills, and different ways to categorize them. For our purposes, they fall into two main categories—technical and transferable skills.

Technical skills are skills you have learned how to do for a specific professional purpose. The first thing many people associate with technical skills is facility with software and computers. Programming in C++ and modelling using Matlab are certainly technical skills, but so are sampling techniques, being able to use specific equipment in the lab, and discipline-specific research methodologies. At the same time, writing a grant proposal to specifications, or formatting documents according to different citation methods are also technical skills.

Transferable skills, on the other hand, are skills that you are using in multiple domains of your life on a daily basis. For example, when you are communicating with other people this demonstrates the important transferable skill of, communication. Transferable skills can often feel more difficult to quantify and prove. People with a more technical background often tend to underestimate the value of transferable skills to employers. Yet, when employers are surveyed, the top skills they are looking for (and often have difficulty finding) tend to be transferable skills, such as communication, interpersonal skills, intercultural skills and project management.

Skills can be learned and developed in a variety of ways: through academic or vocational training, self-study, hobbies, or on-the-job activities. In the labour market, skills are the currency used by workers in exchange for pay, so the more you develop your skills, the more marketable you will be.

If you were asked right now to list your skills, what would your list look like? It might be a short list, not because you do not possess many skills, but simply because you have never been asked to identify them and are not accustomed to thinking or talking about them especially if you have spent a long time in academia. Each person possess approximately 700 distinct skills. However, most people have trouble identifying their skills and, even when able to do so, feel uncomfortable promoting them. What’s important to remember is that what sets you apart as a candidate are the specific examples you can provide that prove the skills you claim to have. Having a realistic understanding of your skills will enable you to pursue occupations that you are qualified for and that you will enjoy.

Connected to, but different from skills are personal attributes. Personal attributes are qualities or characteristics that are a part of what make you who you are. Examples include having a positive attitude or being enthusiastic. They tend to be related to skills, since certain collections of personal qualities, such as enthusiasm and approachability, often allow the individual to develop more effective interpersonal skills, but they are not considered to be the same thing.

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development