Training in professional skills has become widespread in UK universities, particularly at postgraduate level, following the Roberts report SET for success in 2002. It is fair to say that the purpose of some of this training has not always been clear to students receiving it. In addition, the quality of the training has been mixed. This has led to the view expressed by some students that much of it is a waste of time.

To illustrate the need for this kind of training consider the job of an academic. A significant fraction of the time of any academic, at least in the UK and the US, is spent securing funding for research. This involves writing tightly argued cases for support, a degree of financial acumen, and sometimes being interviewed by funding agencies. An ability to write clearly, grammatically and persuasively is a huge advantage. At interviews purpose, need and feasibility have to be demonstrated with clarity, confidence and enthusiasm. These are all skills that can be acquired through appropriate training. Successful academics become leaders of research groups and an ability to lead and work effectively with other people is mandatory. The importance of outreach by academics has been recognised by both higher education institutions and the Government. Outreach appears in the Research Evaluation Framework as an explicit category on which all academics are assessed every 5 years. Some academics have to deal with ethical issues virtually every day of their professional lives. Every academic has to make ethical decisions at some point in their careers, e.g. whether they are willing to accept funding from certain organisations, where they should focus their research to maximise the benefit to society, whether they are willing to accept invitations to speak in certain countries, or work to support dissident scientists in repressive regimes. An ability to recognise and discuss such issues is essential.

However, there is a growing sense that training in professional skills in universities has missed the mark. Consider the following quote from an article entitled ‘We can work it out’ by Rebecca Attwood in The Times Higher Education Supplement, September 2, 2010:

James Reed is chairman of the recruitment company Reed and knows a thing or two about what employers are looking for in their employees. When someone told him in a meeting, "The trouble is, we don't know which skills will be most in demand in 10 years' time," he decided to ask employers a question. If they had to choose between an individual with "the desired mindset" who lacked the complete skill set for the job, and an individual with the complete skill set but without the desired mindset, which would it be? The individual with the desired mindset was chosen by 1,212 out of 1,263 respondents.

"If we get the mindset right, it is more likely to lead to skills being developed as a consequence," says Reed, who fears that much of what is on offer may be "facing the wrong way".

James Reed identifies here the crucial importance for employers of the right ‘mindset’. In this context ‘mindset’ probably means attitude to work and to the people we work with. It involves being aware of our impact on the people we work with and on the organisation we work for, i.e. an awareness of our ‘personal impact’. A person with the right ‘mindset’ has thought through how s/he can contribute most effectively in the workplace and is putting that thinking into practice. These qualities are personal attributes rather than ‘skills’ we may or may not have. They are manifested through our behaviour and attitudes, and they are changed through experience. 

There is no question that having the right ‘mindset’ makes an enormous difference in academic life too. Academics frequently talk about the need for ‘good citizenship’ by which they mean the need for everyone to be supportive and willing to do their share for the common good.

If we should be focusing on behaviour, attitudes and personal impact rather than skills should we still call this training in professional skills? We have decided to use ‘professional skills’ because it is so widely used, and it is hard to think of a name that does not make it all seem too Orwellian!

In the TSM-CDT we have pioneered a ground-breaking, residential 3-day course that focuses on personal impact, self-awareness, giving and receiving feedback, and team-working. This course was developed in partnership with two other CDTs: the Sheffield-Manchester CDT on Advanced Metallic Systems and the Strathclyde CDT on Medical Devices. The course director, Piero Vitelli (www.island41.com/biography.html), works closely with students before and during the course to ensure relevance and engagement.  The Bloodhound Group (www.bloodhoundssc.com) plays a central role in the course and their involvement provides a strong sense of motivation for all students. The course is given to PhD students in the year following the MSc. It was given in June 2011 for the first time and it was an extraordinary success for everyone involved. There is a video and a short report about the course can be found here.

The second residential course will focus on careers and is given to PhD students in the second year after the MSc. This course is still being developed but the intention is to engage students in thinking through their career options and start the process of actively planning their careers.

The third 3-day course centres on science communication and is carried out in conjunction with Gareth Mitchell in the Science Communication Group of the Humanities Faculty. This is an established and outstandingly successful 3-day course, which has been given across the UK. It  involves a session in a BBC studio to make a science program. It is another example of a pioneering and highly successful course developed by Imperial CDTs, this time by the Chemical Biology CDT. 

We will also discuss ethical issues that may arise in your work and beyond. There are 4 one-day modules on ethics, one in the MSc year, and three in the 3 years of the PhD. The module in the MSc year focuses on research ethics, including falsification of data and plagiarism. This is followed by two modules on ethics related more directly to working on materials. The final module will be student led and may, for example, involve a debate between leading ethicists and open to all members of the College.

Summary

Our suite of courses on professional skills has been developed to help you know yourself better, to help you develop ways of working with people effectively, and to develop your abilities in communicating science to a range of audiences. You will be able to contemplate with confidence the wide range of challenging and rewarding careers available to you on graduation. The set of 4 modules on ethics underpins everything you do in your MSc and PhD, and afterwards, by acquainting you with ways of thinking that are both rigorous and immensely helpful in making decisions about your life.

Three steps need to be taken, over your lifetime, to fulfill your potential: you must (i) identify our goals, (ii) formulate strategies to achieve them, and (iii) implement these strategies. The courses you will attend on ethics and professional skills are intended to enable you to begin this process, which will help to shape the rest of your life.