How To Leverage Your Coursework To Gain Transferable Skills


As a student, you’ve probably considered how the content of your courses will help you once you start working after graduation.

In many cases, though, the skills you gain through your coursework can be even more important than the content of your courses.

How can you leverage your coursework and assignments to develop transferable skills?

Choose your electives strategically

Yes, I take research methods courses as electives!  They are flexible and rich in transferable skills.  I was not sure what field of study I wanted to pursue, but research methods courses allowed me to develop skills (e.g., quantitative analysis) that can be applied to many subjects.  Experience with research sets university students apart from other job applicants.

Because many arts students shy away from taking statistics, this is one way you can set yourself apart.  My statistics professor, for example, got a job as soon as she graduated simply because she could use plain language to explain what data meant.  If you’re not sure what to take as an elective anyway, it might be worth considering an introductory statistics course.  These courses are rich in transferable skills: you can apply statistics to almost any field of study or career.

Find out which section will give you the skills you need

Consider which transferable skills different sections of the same course can offer.  For example, I wanted to take a survey research course this year and several sections were offered.  I knew that I wanted to learn how to use statistical software, so I contacted professors who were teaching the course.  One of the sections incorporated statistical software, so I enrolled in that section.  The ability to use statistical software is now a skill I can add to my CV.

Consider the methods of study in each course

Inquiry-based learning

Students at my campus have to take “The World in the 21st Century” during their first year.  What some students don’t realize is that – although the course is mandatory – they can choose how they will study the course material.

Students can enroll in a regular section or an inquiry-based learning section of the course.  Students in the inquiry-based learning section the opportunity to gain research skills, problem-solving skills, and presentation skills (they are expected to present their findings not only in traditional essays, but also through presentations, diagrams, etc.).

Community-service learning

Some course sections include a community-service learning component.  This might be an opportunity for you to gain professional and administrative skills that a “regular” section of the course wouldn’t offer, even though the content of the courses is the same.   A fellow student in the community-service learning course I took mentioned that it was the first time she worked in a professional setting!

Directed study courses

If you’re interested in gaining research skills, for a career and/or pursuing graduate school, it might be worth taking a directed study course (or what some universities call independent studies or directed reading courses).  15% of my degree will have been completed this way before I graduate.

These courses have given me a chance to undertake larger research projects (e.g., 35-page research papers) and tailor work to my interest in human rights (e.g., I am taking a political theory course and write short papers that focus on human rights).  These skills and opportunities for specialization will help as I apply to graduate school.

Tailor your assignments

Once you’re in a course, you can structure your learning to develop more marketable skills or work toward a personal career goal.  For instance, I am taking a course about genocide and decided to write a paper about the role of the radio in Rwanda by analyzing radio transcripts.  My professor indicated that this research would give me experience with analyzing primary documents.

How do you ensure your university or college coursework will provide transferable skills?
About the author

Elizabeth Baisley is currently studying for an Master of Arts in Political Studies at Queen's University, where she works as a teaching assistant. She recently completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Human Rights & Human Diversity at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus. Elizabeth's academic interest in the rights of marginalized populations translates into her volunteer work and extracurricular involvement in the fields of rights advocacy, immigrant settlement, literacy, health, environmental issues, and local democracy. In September 2013, she will begin her PhD in Politics at Princeton University.