Are transferable skills more important than specialist subject knowledge in graduates?

I’ve just taken part in a debate at the first SHEEF (Scottish Higher Education Employability Forum) conference, supporting the motion: ‘This house believes that, in this day and age, high level transferable skills in graduates are more important than specialist subject knowledge’.

it was great to take part in such a lively discussion. I was nervous before I started, as I had never taken part in a formal debate before. Fortunately I was the first to speak and was ably assisted by Alex Barton of Student Designers, so I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

It’s fair to say that the consensus at the conference was that graduates need both specialist knowledge and transferable skills in order to be effective in their careers. However, we were talking to an academic audience, so it’s not surprising that we lost the debate. After all, the primary purpose of universities is to teach specialist subjects to the highest possible level.

My own view is that graduates should have excellent technical knowledge, but that they also need to learn the ‘soft’ skills that employers require too. I used the analogy that all hotels provide towels, but in order to different yourself from average hotels, you need to provide really fluffy towels. In other words, employers expect (and already get) a good level of technical competence from graduates, but want more than that basic level of graduate skilling. Perhaps the implication that transferable skills are like ‘fluffy towels’ was a bit of a stretch for the audience?

Anyway, here is the text of my opening statement. I’d love to know which way you would have voted!


Did you know that the loop of Henle in seals is much shorter than in dogs? For those who don’t know what the loop of Henle is, it’s a microscopic structure found in the kidney, which concentrates urine. I learnt that at university, but, needless to say, I’ve gone through life never having had use for that knowledge………. until now, perhaps?

What did YOU learn at university that has stayed with you, and proved useful, for all of your life? I’d hazard a guess that very little of the formal subject learning stayed in your head for longer than was necessary to pass your exams.

During my time at university, my focus was on learning enough about each subject to pass exams, without really pausing to appreciate what ELSE I was learning. But what percentage of the specialist subject knowledge that I learned at university has actually stayed with me? I can honestly say, very little.

It’s only with hindsight that I know that when I was at university I learnt much more than JUST the subjects I studied.

As a scientist, I learnt how to analyse and I learnt how to be objective. I learned how to study, I learned how to meet deadlines.

These are all useful skills.

Now I have a real passion for learning, I’m curious about how the world works, and I am still fascinated by the field of life sciences. But that enjoyment of learning is something I started to feel many years AFTER university, after the need to pass exams dwindled away.

Still, I don’t remember everything that I learn, but – hey, now we have Wikipaedia!!

Of course, some of specialist knowledge that you learn in your first degree will become the building blocks for your future career. The specialist knowledge makes you WHAT YOU ARE, be that an engineer, a biologist, a doctor.

If you are in a fast moving field, however, what you are studying now as cutting edge science will become widely known, or even out of date, by the time you graduate. If it’s already out of date, how useful is it really? And whilst it might be useful for those who continue to pursue a career in academic research, is it relevant to everyone?

I learnt the theory of the brand new subject of genetic engineering in my first degree; five years later I was teaching agriculture undergraduates how to splice genes in practical laboratory classes. I bet that was a really useful skill for them to have in later life down on the farm…..

I was also a member of the biology society, and I learnt how to run successful events.
I learned how to cooperate with others and to delegate tasks to a team. I learnt that (sometimes!) other people could be right. I learned how to negotiate a good deal on beer, I learnt how to head off a fight. I learnt how to stay calm and find a replacement when the DJ cancelled an hour before a dance was due to start.

I learnt that it was important to know about how to relate to people, and I realised that most people will help you, if they like you.

I’m very glad to have a degree. It’s evidence that I can work hard and meet challenging expectations. I hope it means I have a reasonable level of intelligence. Over the years, it has opened doors for me in my varied careers.

There is no doubt that specialist subject knowledge is important. You can’t start to build bridges until you have some knowledge of basic engineering principals. But is that knowledge all that you need?

Won’t you be a better engineer if you have already learnt to be a good team player? To appreciate that by collaborating with others, your skills will contribute more to the overall project?
Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to have the communications skills that allow you to gently point out that senior member of the team might have made a dangerous mistake in their calculations without antagonising them?

If we are honest, we all know that, unless you remain at the sharp edge of research, most of the specialist subject knowledge you learn at university will go out of your head (or out of date) very quickly.

But transferable skills, the “soft” skills that make you WHO you are, are the skills you use every day, the aptitudes that stay with you throughout your life,

….and I’ve never forgotten how to organise a great party!

Published by Fiona

Fiona was once a hands-on scientist and still has a curious mind. She combines strategic thinking with an entrepreneurial attitude and the ability to make great connections. She also takes photos.

2 thoughts on “Are transferable skills more important than specialist subject knowledge in graduates?

  1. Looking back at my own career experiences, I think I’d still choose the degree(s) but its definitely the soft skills I’ve developed through life (including my student days) that allow me to tackle new challenges and make sure I can deliver what I say I will. That said, a friend whose husband is about to be made redundant told me this week that he has tried applying for jobs in other sectors where his soft skills are very relevant, but he has been knocked back because there are so many people applying who have the sectoral experience too. So maybe in times of high unemployment the technical/sectoral skills tend to tip the balance?

    1. Interesting comment. I do believe that technical skills and specialist knowledge are essentials in a graduate, but soft skills are needed to differentiate someone from the hordes of well qualified (technically) graduates out there. As your career progresses up the scale, I believe that the technical knowledge becomes far less important than the ‘transferable skills’ that develop as you gain work experience. Having at least some awareness of the importance of these soft skills early in your career should give you an advantage. In other words, you need both!

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