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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Research skills, transferable skills, and the new academic imperative

The challenges afflicting higher education in the US are many and multifaceted, and much has been written about the transformation (or full-blown identity crisis, if you’re being less charitable) of the academic institution and its place in society. Much of the controversy has to do with the institution’s responsibilities toward its students, its employees, and the community, with some claiming that “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is no longer a sufficient offering in a world of rising tuition fees and a brutally competitive job market even for highly educated graduates. When it comes to the structures and expected outcomes associated with undergraduate, masters, and PhD programs, a common complaint is that the institution does too little to prepare students for careers in or outside academia.

Most universities have two key “outputs” intended for the betterment of society: graduates (the people they educate) and research (the publications and discoveries produced by their students and faculty), which together make up their total contribution to human knowledge. However, the whole system is challenged by the fact that recent graduates are increasingly unable to find good jobs, and research outputs are under new scrutiny over proper conduct and systemic failures to address this problem. Clearly the status quo cannot stand, and while this is no small challenge, some thought leaders believe that by solving the “research problem” we can successfully tackle the employability issue at the same time.

This bold approach suggests a few immediate questions. How and when should students learn to conduct research effectively and responsibly? How can these skills be taught in such a way that the experiences translate to career paths outside academia? And whose job is it, exactly, to figure this all out and deliver sustainable solutions?

The countless stakeholders frustrated by the unfulfilled promise of an expensive undergraduate degree leading to solid employment options, or a hard-won PhD leading to a fulfilling academic career, may find hope in the numerous movements in support of re-thinking the university experience in general and the research experience in particular. Organizations like the Council on Undergraduate Research and the Association of American Colleges and Universities are encouraging us to think of research much more broadly as an opportunity for students and the communities they serve—not as a self-contained activity played out in the lab or in the library stacks, but rather as a set of skills and experiences that find equal relevance in both academic and corporate careers.

Insufficient or nonexistent training can lead to mistakes ranging from the mildly embarrassing to the catastrophic

The possession of research skills, after all, is a professional qualification in itself, and top employers are increasingly seeking out candidates who have more than just a degree and knowledge of a subject, however advanced that knowledge may be. Now and in the future, the most in-demand jobseekers will be those who bring a strong set of analytical and problem-solving skills—in addition to professional skills such as communication, collaboration, and leadership—that they have already mastered before graduating from college. Advocates of the undergraduate research movement are confident that a new focus on transferable skills and “professionalization” of research is the key to empowering students and helping institutions to enhance their reputations by providing impactful training support in these areas.

Powerful training programs can help even experienced researchers to produce better results and excel in their careers. The issue of pervasive laxity in research and reproducibility has prompted institutions to give another look at the quality of the training they offer to students and faculty, lest one of their own publishes a paper that attracts media attention for all the wrong reasons. No matter how long a researcher has been working in a given field, there are always opportunities to hone the skills necessary for planning, executing, and publishing better results that contribute positively to the body of knowledge and to the researcher’s own career advancement.

And those who choose to pursue a career in “pure” experimental research, whether in academia or industry, are by no means off the hook when it comes to the professional competencies discussed above. The perils of hiring good scientists who are poor communicators and lack basic managerial skills are well understood by anyone who has worked in a research setting, as is the reality that these skill gaps in leadership positions seriously perpetuate the cycle of poor training of junior researchers, who too often rely on informal (and sometimes inaccurate) knowledge transfer from their peers. It must be the responsibility of higher education to address student training needs as early as possible, as otherwise the institution will not realize the full potential of its talent pool and may in fact be wasting vast resources on research that is improperly conducted.

Delivering on this imperative is as challenging as it is critical, but institutions are not facing the task alone; federally funded grants, professional organizations, and corporate and nonprofit partners are equally invested in the outcomes of improved access to training and development for researchers across the career arc, from the eager but inexperienced undergraduate to the overworked senior research administrator.

Simply put, better training leads to better career options for researchers, better research output for institutions, and better talent for academic and non-academic employers. Insufficient or nonexistent training can lead to mistakes ranging from the mildly embarrassing to the catastrophic; and while self-preservation through preemptive damage control may be the most basic (and most cynical) motivation to invest in training, the true opportunity is to rise to the calling to prepare new generations of researchers to tackle the biggest challenges of our time.

Featured image credit: Key on keyboard. By JeongGuHyeok. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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