Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2014, 2, 66-75
Published Online May 2014 in SciRes.
How to cite this paper: Kapranos, P. (2014) Teaching Transferable Skills to Doctoral Level EngineersThe Challenge and
the Solutions. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2, 66-75. s .2014. 25014
Teaching Transferable Skills to Doctoral
Level EngineersThe Challenge and the
P. Kapranos
Department of Materials Science & Engineering, The University of Sheffield, Sir Robert Hadfield Building,
Mappin Street, Sheffield, S1 3JD, UK
Received April 2014
At Sheffield University, we designed a Skills Diplomathat supports and certifies our graduates in
the areas of Transferable Skills. The Diploma in Personal and Professional Skills for Centers of
Doctoral Training (CDT’s) has been built into the 4-year PhD scheme in the following format: Part
of the Diploma in Year one provides training in essential personal effectiveness skills to enable
students to carry out their PhD research projects; training covers skills such as networking, com-
munication & presentation, motiv at ion , assertiveness, project and time management and creative
thinking and later in Year three, students build on the personal skills training delivered in year
one and focus on professional skills required in business and industry. Students record their ref-
lections and development in their Personal Development Planning (PDP) log supported by in-class
and on line tutorials. A blended learningteaching approach is adopted with interactive sessions,
including work in small groups, short presentations, individual reflection, plenary discussions and
structured tasks. Students are encouraged to take a reflective approach to their learning and to
identify their own additional training needs. A very important part of their learning experience is
the SME Project where groups of students have to solve “realproblems and present their solu-
tions within two working weeks. The teaching strategies and methods, learning objectives, as-
sessment and feedback have all been constructively aligned within a flexible curriculum and we
believe that the approach outlined above represents a paradigm shift in training tomorrows
leaders for UK industry.
Transferable Skills, Personal Skills, Professional Skills, Blended Learning, Constructive Alignment
1. Introduction—The Challenge
Professor David Rae and his co-authors, in a recent paper entitled Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in English
Higher Education: 2010 and beyond[1], observe that the UK economy has shown very low levels of growth
and recovery from the recession, thus presenting a major challenge for our graduates in their search for em-
P. Kapranos
ployment and that graduates will require higher levels of skills in order to compete in the changing job market”.
The 2006 Leitch Review of Skills[2] also signaled the need towards specific workforce skills and a focus
for up-skilling of graduates through to 2020, which prompted the Higher Education Funding Council for Eng-
land to develop a new co-funding model with employers for funding HE. The implementation of these reforms
detailed in the White Paper Students at the Heart of the System[3] will have a significant impact upon busi-
ness—university collaboration.
These calls for a greater emphasis on up-skilling of graduates are driven by the need of UK’s ability to com-
pete internationally and respond to the pressures of uncertainty and complexity induced by globalization of labor
markets. There is a clear need for flexible and highly adaptable graduates who can think on their feet and be in-
novative in the current competitive global economic environment.
Academic institutions also have to respond to these challenges by revising their curricula and offering more
integration across subject areas, practice-based pedagogical tools, more teamwork learning opportunities,
through collaboration with industry and business, that are meaningful, relevant and lead to lifelong learning
skillsas proposed by The Oslo Agenda for Entrepreneurship Education in Europe (2006) [4]. That in effect
means Educators themselves have to be trained to be enterprising and flexible, creating appropriate learning en-
vironments that enhance the student experience, while accommodating the needs for robust quality assurance
The European Parliament and the EU Council in December 2006, made a number of recommendations in the
Key Competences Reference Framework of what our future graduates should possess: “... ability to turn ideas
into action... have creativity, innovation and risk-taking, as well as the ability to plan and manage projects in
order to achieve objectives. These [skills] support individuals, not only in their everyday lives at home and in
society, but also in the workplace in being aware of the context of their work and being able to seize opportuni-
ties, and are a foundation for more specific skills and knowledge needed by those establishing or contributing to
social or commercial activity. These should include awareness of ethical values and promoting good gover-
In UK and elsewhere we clearly need to re-think the way we train our engineers and more specifically our top
engineers, those at doctoral level, to ensure that they become the leaders of tomorrow’s industries, the engines
of our economic recovery. Tryggvason & Apelian, in their Shaping our World[5] propose that the engineer of
this century is someone who:
1) Knows everything:
Can find information about anything quickly.
Knows how to evaluate & use the information.
Transform the information to knowledge.
2) Can do anything:
Understands the engineering basics in order to assess what needs to be done.
Can acquire the tools needed and use the proficiently.
3) Collaborates:
Has communication & team skills.
Understands global issues and can work with anybody anywhere.
4) Innovates:
Has imagination, entrepreneurial spirit and managerial skills to identify needs, come up with solutions and
take them to the market.
Deliberately I specified above our top engineersbecause the challenge is to take our graduate engineers,
who although very good, they are in general individuals who have learned how to successfully pass exams and
graduate, and turn them into independent researchers at PhD level and instil in them not only the capacity of in-
dependent thinking but equipped with transferable career skills that will make them the successful leaders of our
industrial future.
2. The Sheffield Solution—Diploma in Personal & Professional Skills within
the Doctoral Training Centers (CDTs)
2.1. The Philosophy behind the Diploma
One of the main tasks of the CDTs is to educate and train the industrial leaders of tomorrow. The expectation is
P. Kapranos
that our CDT graduates not only will be equipped with the necessary technical knowledge and expertise but also
with the appropriate transferable skills and enterprising attitude that will be key to leading the industrial resur-
gence and economic recovery in UK, the EU and the world in general [6]-[10].
We believe that learning is the modification of behavior through training, practice or experience, and as a re-
sult the CDT Diploma in Personal and Professional Skills has been devised to change the Knowledge, Attributes,
Skills, and ultimately the Behavior of our students by learning about the topic(knowledge), “for the topic
(attributes), and through the topic(skills) [10] [11]. We also believe that the curriculum is never static and
therefore it has to be flexible enough to accommodate changes as our students’ progress through their Diploma
studies (Figure 1) [12] and has to be clearly aligned as far as teaching strategies and methods, learning objec-
tives, assessment and feedback (Figure 2). We endeavor to kindle in the students the desire to learn about the
particular topic, instil or strengthen their self-belief, influence the willingness and attitudes towards learning,
cultivate appropriate learning behaviors, and through reflection and conceptualization of their achievements of
the various objectives start them on a virtuous journey of self-discovery, life -long learning and continuous per-
sonal improvement [10] [11].
2.2. Constructive Alignment
For an effective learning strategy we pursue constructive alignmentof Learning Outcomes, Pedagogy (Learn-
ing Activities) and Assessment methods (Figure 3).
As already pointed out previously, one of the aims of our CDT Diploma is to equip our graduates with the
transferable skills, as well as the technical knowledge and expertise they will need to succeed in their future ca-
reers and more widely in contributing to our industrial regeneration. In addition, some of the objectives are that
CDT students to be able to:
Identify their personal strengths and weaknesses
Figure 1. The curriculum as an atomic model continuum: The various factors that influence the curriculum are depicted as
atoms within a lattice structure. All are interrelated and all affect each other in various ways. The influences act through the
“springs” connecting the atoms. Movements result in compressions or stretches within the structure (pushes or pulls) which
distort the lattice. However, given time the equilibrium can once again be reached and distortions removed.
Educational Aims
Instructional Influences
Societal Influences
Institutional Influences
Political Influences
Teacher's aims
Student's aims
Economic Influences
Hidden Curriculum
P. Kapranos
Figure 2. The curriculum as an atomic model continuum: The various factors that influence the curriculum are depicted as
atoms within a lattice structure. All are interrelated and all affect each other in various ways. The influences act through the
“springs” connecting the atoms. Movements result in compressions or stretches within the structure (pushes or pulls) which
distort the lattice. However, given time the equilibrium can once again be reached and distortions removed.
Figure 3. Connections between the effectivenessof the CDT graduates
with the learning process.
Display the skills and behaviors of future research leaders
Identify and describe their skills and competencies to future employers
Provide robust evidence of their achievements beyond standard technical competence
It is imperative that our constructive alignmentapproach has to provide not only clear links between the
objectives and the educational methods used in achieving them, but also to the assessment process that verifies
that the objectives are being met.
In developing the various workshops and exercises that will act as the main teaching vehicles, the educational
objectives have been aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy as follows:
1) Knowledge (repeating verbat i m) : list, state, describe, define, identify...
2) Comprehension (demonstrating understanding of terms and concepts): Explain, interpret, s u mma riz e , and
give examples...
3) Application (applying learned information): calculate, solve, apply, show , use, demonstrate...
4) Analysis (breaking things down to their elements, formulating theoretical explanations for observed phe-
nomena): deriv e, e xplain, illustrate, select...
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5) Synthesis (creating something, combining elements in novel ways: formulate, desi gn , devise...
6) Evaluation (making and justifying value judgments): select, compare, cont ra st, criticize...
In the same spirit of innovation, the assessment is also flexible and iterative and consists of:
On line exercises,
Occasional use of Electronic Voting Systems (Clickers) in class,
Classroom individual and group exercises,
Keeping a personal diary on the series of workshops and submission of a reflective portfolio indicating any
changes in knowledge, behavior, and attitudes that are the result of the educational experience,
A group exercise where the students have to solve a real problemin an industrial setting, and within two
working weeks deliver solution(s) and be assessed on them by a panel of industrialists, academics and their
peers. This innovation will be further explored in the next Module as an example of effectual thinking.
The various workshops undertaken by the students for transferable skill development are shown in Table 1
The logic behind these workshops is that as the CDT students work as a cohort during their 1st year of studies
and undergo training in specific technical fields that will be relevant to their future individual doctoral research,
to be chosen towards the later part of year one, therefore the transferable skills modules are arranged to equip
the students with skills that are generic and will be useful in facilitating their future research.
The students are given the tools of becoming more effective independent researchers and at the same time are
imbued with the team ethos of working as a cohort as well as developing as individuals through confidence
building exercises such as Mini-Research projects and Public Engagement Projects.
Towards the later part of their studies, the transferable skills become more focused in training the students to
act with professionalism and therefore are closer to industry and its needs are as shown in Table 1, as well as
other skills needed to complete their PhDs and seek employment, such as Thesis Writing Skills, Career Skills
and the workings of Science & Engineering and the Media.
During their induction week at the start of their CDT experience, the students are given to understand the
philosophy behind the Diploma and how this fits in with their personal development as potential researchers and
future industrial leaders. The modules are contextualized and the students not only can see the value of the in-
tended set of skills but are made to make use of them from the beginning of their CDT studies. They are also
clearly informed from the start on the need for assessment, the procedures that will be followed in having their
work assessed as well as themselves assessing the work of their peers. Appropriate assessment methodology to
any set objectives is very important as it is according to Graham Gibbs’s Dimensions of Qualitythe most tell-
ing indicator of the quality of educational outcomes [13].
In relation to this, the educators and module developers have also done some soul searching and asked a lot of
introspective questions up front in order to ensure that the linkages in our constructive alignment are relevant
and robust (Table 2).
3. Paradigm Shift
A summary of the various objectives associated with the workshops outlined in Table 1 and their relationship to
Bloom’s Taxonomy has been given by Kapranos [14]. The objectives have been based on the Vitae Researcher
Development Framework [15] and as it can be seen the objectives have evolved to the current ones through a
Table 1. Workshops undertaken during the diploma in personal & professional skills.
Specific skills for Year 1 Specific skills for Year 3
1) Networking skills 1) Attracting research funding
2) Working in teams 2) Intellectual property & knowledge transfer
3) Communication & presentation skills 3) Enterprise & business planning
4) Time management
4) Project management & financial management
5) Project management 5) Health & safety at work
6) Creative thinking 6) Conflict resolution & negotiation
7) Getting motivated 7) Facilitation
8) Assertiveness 8) Creativity, innovation, enterprise
9) Getting the most from supervision
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Table 2. Information used in ensuring constructive alignment in the CDT Diploma.
The educators reflect on:
Are you aware of what skills you are supposed to
How are you going to teach them?
How are you going to assess them?
Can you provide ev
idence that learning has taken
The students are made aware that they will:
Develop key knowledge,
attributes and skills through an interactive iterative
reflection process between modules and other CDT work
Attain transferable skills leading to professional wisdom
Discover themselves and bring out strengths they didn’t think they had
Enjoy learning for its own sake
Review and Reflection Process in line with our belief and commitment to a flexible evolutionary curriculum.
In addition to the above, we also believe that with the opportunity afforded to us through the development of
the CDT Diploma we are in a position to carry out our own research into the transition of graduate students to
independent research scholars and future leaders of industry and as we intend to follow up the future career
paths of our graduates we can carry out a longitudinal study on the effectiveness and success or otherwise of our
Diploma in Personal & Professional Skills towards these ends.
3.1. Developing Independe nt Researchers
Traditional PhD research, carried out around the world, involves a student working on a specific topic under the
supervision of one or more academics with the basic task of making an “original contribution to knowledge” and
the underlying philosophical basis of PhD research being “the production of creative scholars” or “preparation
of students for a lifetime of intellectual inquiry that manifests itself in creative scholarship and research” [16].
However, not all students undertaking PhD level research find the transition from UG course followersto PG
producers of knowledgeto be an easy one. In addition, excellent performance at the UG level, although a
good indicator of intellectual capability, does not appear to be a guarantee of success in making the transition to
independent scholarship.
The diagram in Figure 4 relates the performance, effectiveness, and achievement of independent research
scholarly status against a time scale, as experienced by PhD supervisors and their typical PhD students. These
experiences consistently show that PhD students not only take time to adjust to their new status of producer of
knowledge and independent researcher but occasionally the transition is never achieved. The last 10 years has
seen the majority of the UK Research Councils initiate enhanced graduate research training programs through
the development of Centers for Doctoral Training (CDTs). Unlike a traditional PhD route, students enter a CDT
as a cohort and undertake a substantive PhD level research project together with additional individual and group
training activities. These typically include taught coursework, training in a wide range of transferable skills to
enhance their research efficiency and industrial readiness levels, and group activities such as outreach projects to
engage the public in science and engineering. In most cases CDTs are based around a multidisciplinary theme
and have an intake of around 10 - 20 students per year and expect completion of the PhD within 4 years. The
multidisciplinary nature means students have a wide range of first degrees; thu s, the first 6 to 12 months of the
program are generally front-loaded with technical training as well as soft skills courses to fast track the transi-
tion to independent research.
A number of independent researchers have investigated the possible reasons behind successful or not suc-
cessful transitions to independent scholarship [17]-[23] and although they have offered explanations, as well as
useful advice, they all agree with the need for further research. This research has provided us with evidence that
there is no single characteristic indicator for the transition to independent scholarand that the transition
process is influenced by a variety of factors in the macro and micro-environments associated with the process.
The evidence also shows that relationships and interactions within the micro-environment are key resources to
the transition process. There is clear agreement in the literature that more research is necessary to provide
back-up evidence for these socialization models”, as well as unpicking the degree of influence the various pro-
posed factors have on the transition.
The CDT cohort setting provides us with a unique situation that brings together all the macro and micro-
environmental elements used in previous research but with additional layers for data collection such as the CDT
Management Team, the Industrial Sponsors and Industrial Supervisors. These extra layers, in addition to the
typical sources of data collection from CDT academic staff and students, allows methodological triangulation
that might balance out potential weaknesses in our data collection methods. We believe that the interactions
P. Kapranos
Figure 4. Progress of performance, effectiveness and independence of doc-
toral students with time.
of all participants within the social structure of the CDT cohort environment provide aspects that are probably
unique, individual and qualitative and by adapting multiple research methodologies we will be able to explore
and unpick people’s multiple perspectives in the social setting of our CDT cohorts that will allow the emergence
of models from the data to be used not only in the CDT setting but in any setting that has fast-track transition to
independent research scholarship as its target. Our CDT setting will provide high quality long term data collec-
tion over a 4-year PhD studentship period and we expect to follow through with data collection after graduation
to verify that we are indeed producing independently thinking individuals. This puts us in the unique situation of
having a large pool of students at all the various stages of the PhD process who can provide substantial amounts
of data on what might be the ingredients for their successful transition to independent research scholars.
3.2. SME Case Studies
We earlier stated our belief that learning is the modification of behavior through training, practice or experience,
and our approach to change the Knowledge, Attributes, Skills, and ultimately the Behavior of our students by
learning about the topic(knowledg e), “for the topic( attributes), and through the topic(skills). True to our
belief that the curriculum is never static and therefore it has to be flexible enough to accommodate changes as
our students’ progress through their studies through a Review and Reflection Process, together with feedback
from the early CDT cohorts, in line with our belief and commitment to a flexible evolutionary curriculum we
decided on a particular evolution that is compatible with the topic of effectuation.
The originally conceived 11 workshops (modules) for the CDT year three students have been reduced to eight
but the freed up time has been used to introduce the students to a hands on case of effectuation. The students are
split into groups of 4 - 5 and are sent to an SME with the remit of solving a particular problem pertinent to the
company. The students are given 2 working weeks (10 days) to analyze the problem and come up with solutions.
They quickly come to realize that they have to act with what is available to them. Sarasvathy [24] describes “Ef-
fectual reasoningas “a process where entrepreneurs begin with three categories of means: 1) Who they are
their traits, tastes and abilities; 2) What they knowtheir education, training, expertise, and experience; and, 3)
Whom they knowtheir social and professional networks. Using these means, the entrepreneurs begin to im-
agine and implement possible effects that can be created with them. Most often, they start very small with the
means that are closest at hand, and move almost directly into action without elaborate planning. Unlike causal
reasoning that comes to life through careful planning and subsequent execution, effectual reasoning lives and
breathes execution. Plans are made and unmade and revised and recast through action and interaction with
others on a daily basis. Yet at any given moment, there is always a meaningful picture that keeps the team to-
gether, a compelling story that brings in more stakeholders and a continuing journey that maps-out uncharted
territories. Through their actions, the effectual entrepreneursset of means and consequently the set of possible
effects change and get reconfigured. Eventually, certain of the emerging effects coalesce into clearly achievable
and desirable goalslandmarks that point to a discernible path beginning to emerge in the wilderness”.
P. Kapranos
If one were to substitute “CDT studentsinstead of entrepreneurs in the above description of Effectual rea-
soningthey would be providing a very accurate picture of what the groups of CDT students experience in their
2 week SME case studies. This approach was introduced last year and it was successfully completed with both
students and SMEs concerned highly valuing the experience. The students enjoyed the action learning scenario
where they had to bring into play skills they have and ones they did not know they possessed. The groups were
energized by the real nature of the exercise and the fact that they had to behave and act like professionals and act
under real time constraint (2 week delivery deadline) to deliver solutions that were feasible not only technically
but financially. The SMEs that participated were also amazed that in the limited time afforded our students they
were able to use their knowledge and skills to obtain the resources needed to come up with feasible solutions to
the problems they were given (Figure 5).
4. In Conclusion
The Diploma in Personal & Professional Skills for the Doctoral Training Centers (CDTs) has been designed
around existing official guidelines and the wider literature with a philosophy of blended learningand con-
structive alignmentof Learning Outco mes, Pedagogy (Learning Activities) and Assessment methods. The
educational philosophy outlining our goals, values and attitudes is offered as proof of the professionalism in our
approach as proposed by Hannon [25] and further proof is the use of a wide variety of pedagogies.
Individual workshops and activities are linked to the skills to be taught under the various modules. Clearly,
the ownership conferred by student chosen projects act as an excellent intrinsic motivator and a reliable scaffold
on which to hang the various skills we would like our CDT students to possess and have practiced at the end of
their studies.
The use of the SME case studies as a vehicle of development of skills in actionis consistent with White-
head’s notions of educational aims [26] that “… there is only one subject matter for education, and that is Life
in all its manifestations”. This approach does indeed attempts, as Whitehead suggests, teaching the students via
Real Life Experiences”, create for them appreciation by use”, the students gain their knowledge quickly and
then use it’ and as they use it, they retain it. Whitehead also gives fair warning that this is not an easy task:
Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge. This is an art very difficult to impart”. It
is encouraging that the early success of this approach and the positive all round response seems to indicate that a
number of boxes are being ticked and although difficult, the acquisition of knowledge through use is definitely
being imparted in this process.
Figure 5. The educational aspects of the SME case studies.
P. Kapranos
The CDT Diploma affords us a unique opportunity to carry out research into the transition of graduate stu-
dents to independent research scholars and future leaders of industry and as we intend to follow up the future
career paths of our graduates we can carry out a longitudinal study on the effectiveness and success or otherwise
of our Diploma in Personal & Professional Skills towards these ends.
Recent adjustments to our existing CDT modules have been highly influenced and consistent with Gibb’s
Towards the Entrepreneurial University[9] and QAA’s Enterprise and entrepreneurship education: Guidance
for UK higher education providers[11]. This is once again an example of our ever evolving flexible curriculum
together with further proof of our constructively aligned enterprising educational philosophy.
4.1. Authors and Affiliations
Dr. Plato Kapranos, Senior University Teacher, Department of Materials Science & Engineering, The University
of Sheffield, Sir Robert Hadfield Building, Mappin Street, Sheffield, S1 3JD, Y orkshire, UK. Emai l :
Thanks to all the colleagues who have interacted with me in the CDT project and to our students who have been
part of these exciting developments in the shared Teaching & Learning experience and last but not least EPSRC
for their farsightedness in funding the Centers for Doctoral Training.
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