Institute of Astronomy

Transferable Skills

Transferable skills are generic skills that can equip you for a broad range of study, research or employment situations. Examples include verbal and written communication, team working, time management, computing skills and evaluation skills. Over the past year students from the Institute of Astronomy have taken part in a number of activities such as language programmes, public outreach and specific skills development seminars.

So why do I need them?

Transferable skills enhance the subject and research specific skills you acquire as a matter of course. Astronomers need to communicate their findings to other astronomers. Good transferable skills training will enhance your ability to communicate your passion to other astronomers and a much wider lay audience. As astronomers we are often funded by public bodies so it is important not to ignore communicating our work back to the general public. In addition many of you will also find yourselves working with larger teams of collaborators. Being able to function effectively within such a team is an important skill to develop. During your course of study you will also acquire skills that help you manage your own research programme and career path more effectively.

Many astronomy PhD students go on to find employment in the academic research environment but there are those who diversify into related fields utilising their specialist analytical skills. Examples include oceanographers, software developers, meteorologists, teachers, general practitioners, solicitors and hedge fund analysts to name but a few. Transferable skills training helps expand the opportunities available to you, by giving you the confidence and vision to see how your specialist skills can be adapted and expanded.

What is the University's policy?

It is now a requirement that all PhD students funded by the UK Research Councils, including STFC, participate in 10 days per annum of training in 'Transferable Skills'. The University has since decided that such training should be available for all PhD students, irrespective of their source of funding. Transferable skills should be developed alongside your subject/research specific skills. Transferable skills training should be monitored. Log sheets will be provided to help you do this.

How do I fill in my log sheet and what should I do with it?

You are asked to keep a transferable skills log sheet each year and submit this before the end of the Easter term to Joy McSharry. In practice it is probable that you would prefer to use up to 15 days training provision in your first year, 10 for the second and 5 for the third or similar. You should take personal responsibility for ensuring that you undertake the required amount of training during the course of your PhD. In practice, fulfilling the required number of days is not difficult as any talks you may give at student seminars / group meetings / attendance of Seminars etc count towards them. The completed sheets are then returned to the Office of the School of Physical Sciences to monitor the Transferable Skills Development Programme and the information used to help determine future funding.

How did the funding come about?

In 2001 the Government commissioned a review led by Gareth Roberts to investigate the skills of scientists and how they might be improved. The review 'SET for success' was published and subsequently the government has provided money through the Research Councils to support development and training opportunities for PhD and postdoctoral researchers.  This money is now known as 'Roberts Money'.  Further information about this is found in the 'Joint Statement of the Research Councils Skills Training Requirement for Research Students'  (

What can be funded?

The University of Cambridge Policy is that Transferable Skills training should develop the researcher's skills in the areas outlined in the Research Councils' Joint Skills Statement. The funds are intended for postgraduate students and research council funded postdoctoral researchers, however, non–RC funded PhD students and postdocs should also benefit.

What training is available?

Internal Training

The Institute of Astronomy, being a relatively small department, relies on obtaining the majority of its transferable skills training courses from the School of Physical Science and from other courses run by the University. The Induction Programme, however, for first year students incorporates some transferable skills training (University Safety Induction Course, Library Tour, Computing courses). Carolin Crawford, in collaboration with Lisa Jardine–Wright (Educational Outreach Officer for the Physics Department), also runs a communications skills course each year.

Mark Hurn is able to give further bibliographic training if requested. You will also have the opportunity of becoming a postgraduate supervisor, for which formal training will be organised by the IoA. Outreach activities such as involvement with the Institute's Open Day and public observing evenings are encouraged. Joy McSharry is the Institute's Transferable Skills co–ordinator and is happy to help with any questions, requests or information you seek (

University of Cambridge - Skills Portal - For information on what is available for postgraduate students from the university.
University of Cambridge - Board of Graduate Studies (,Language Centre, the Computing Service, Staff Development, the Health and Safety Division, Disability Resource
Centre and the Careers Service.  It is worth noting that Staff Development run a specific programme for Contract
Research Staff entitled ``Researchers Development Programme'' and a specific programme for Graduate Students
``Graduate Development Programme'' (
 School of the Physical Sciences ( - supports postgraduates and postdoctoral
researchers develop their skills during their time at Cambridge.  Please see what the other departments within the
School offer by accessing their individual websites. Cambridge University External Affairs and Communications. If
you wish to get involved in the local community or with volunteering please visit  They also run a Public Communications course.  ``Rising stars'' was set up in early 2007 and is intended for those wishing to pursue an academic career, and wanting to hone their
communication skills in order to integrate public engagement with their academic discipline


External training

Vitae is an excellent resource.  Each year the National and Regional ``hubs'' run residential courses (GRADschools) of between three and four days. Visit their website to learn how constructive and enjoyable these courses are for postgrads. The main objective of the GRADschools is to encourage you to identify the skills you have and how best to market them.  UK GRAD also has a section just for postgraduate researchers where you can access tips on how to manage your PhD effectively.

Other Ideas

'The British Science Association' is a registered charity which exists to advance public understanding, accessibility and accountability of sciences and engineering (

SenseAbout Science is an independent charitable trust (

The VoYS programme helps research scientists in the early stages of their career to get actively involved in public debates about science.  Please visit the STFC and Royal Society websites (depending on your source of funding) to
see what courses they have on offer.
The Institute of Astronomy has in the past approved external training courses ranging from Counselling, a course in First-Aid, Scientific Writing for Astronomers (three day course in Belgium), The ``Voice of young Science workshop'' held in London, ``She is an Astronomer'' Conference as part of IYA 2009 and purchased the equipment for the podcast.  If you wish to attend an external course, please email Joy first to see if funding is available. At the end of the Easter Term, please complete and return log sheets to her.
Careers Advice: The University's Careers Service ( is available for you at anytime to help with career planning.  Please see the comprehensive facilities available.   You can arrange to have a one-to-one discussion with a careers advisor.


Joy Mcsharry - Transferable Skills Co-ordinator - -
Tel: 61537
Postgraduate Training Officer for the School of Physical Sciences
(position currently vacant but please contact Fiona Sutton on
Liz Simmonds - Careers advisor for Physical Science Post Docs -
or Dr Madelene Chapman ( who has been appointed to cover for Liz while she is on maternity leave.

Page last updated: 11 October 2011 at 17:06