GLOBAL: OECD maps PhD transferable skills progress

Amid claims that doctoral training still follows a medieval model of cloning students to emulate their mentors, an OECD study aims to find out how countries are equipping their researchers with the transferable skills vital in today's world. Government policies and institutional practices will be covered in a comprehensive questionnaire circulated to universities, public research institutions and government agencies.

The study is being organised by the OECD's working group on research institutions and human resources, or RIHR, and is related to other OECD projects on knowledge transfer and public research, notably on pre-conditions for innovation in modern economies.

"Transferable skills help researchers pursue varied careers and contribute to better research outputs, and can ultimately enhance research and innovation performance," Ester Basri, senior policy analyst in the OECD science and policy division, told University World News.

The RIHR is surveying researcher training in interpersonal skills such as: team-working, mentoring, negotiating and networking abilities; organisational skills such as project and time management and career planning; research competencies such as grant application, research management and leadership, cross-scientific research methods, research ethics and integrity; cognitive abilities such as creativity and problem-solving; and communication skills, teaching skills, use of science in policy-making and enterprise skills such as entrepreneurship, patenting and knowledge transfer.

Thomas Jørgensen, senior programme manager at the European University Association, said the OECD study was timely. "The work done by EUA on university-industry relations shows that transferable skills are important, but different types for different industries.

"Large companies will have their in-house training and look for the kinds of generic skills that come from the research mindset such as a high level of creativity and the ability to overcome unexpected problems by thinking out of the box," Jørgensen continued.

"Smaller industries, though, appreciate that newly recruited doctoral holders come equipped for instance with knowledge about management or teamwork. The important thing, however, is the kind of unique training coming from having produced an original piece of research."

Dr Katrien Maes, chief policy officer of the League of European Research Universities, said: "I suspect the investigation will show there are different ways to ensure that graduates are well prepared for the job market of today and tomorrow. The challenge will lie in picking the best option for a particular situation. Knowledge gained through this study will help governments and institutions to devise better policies and strategies."

Lena Adamson, former secretary-general of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education and an expert on quality assurance, teaching and learning for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship at the European Institute of Technology, EIT, said transferable skills was a field that needed to be highlighted. She expected the OECD to find big variations in how different faculties, universities and countries tackle the issue.

Adamson said the EIT's masters and doctoral programmes were examples of a strong focus on training in transferable skills, which were imparted in the context of the content of educational programmes and not in separate courses or modules.

"The OECD initiative will provide us with information on how far universities have come on this subject and give us good examples that others can use," she believed.

Dr Jon Turner, director of the Institute of Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, hopes the survey will highlight areas of potential international cooperation and collaboration in PhD education.

"Internationally I see several countries that are interested in researcher careers, both within and outside academia. Key topics include the recruitment and retention of the best potential researchers for PhD programmes, the relevance of the PhD to careers outside academia, and how to ensure that the PhD provides the best preparation possible for these careers."

Zaza Nadja Lee Hansen of the career development working group at the European Council of Doctorate Candidates and Junior Researchers, EURODOC, cautioned against any suggestion that developing transferable skills means doctoral candidates need to develop additional skills that are outside of their research training.

"A PhD indicates that the researcher already possesses a set of skills that should be recognised by their employers in the public and private sectors," she said.

"Certainly, we encourage doctoral candidates to better communicate their skills to their potential employers. But it would be incorrect to assume that making 'transferable skills' courses mandatory - which would surely prolong the time to degree - would improve the situation."

The OECD study, which will be published in 2012, could bring new facts to the table on the relationship between training at universities and innovation processes in modern economies.