Online and Self-directed Skills Development

We introduce eight core skills in our Employability Skills briefing, from self-management to leadership, providing ideas for how to develop these alongside your studies. Beyond these generic transferable skills, it can be a good idea to develop other skills that are relevant to or useful in specific industry sectors or functional roles.

Graduate employers do not expect you to be an expert before you join them, even where they require applicants to have studied a particular subject. In fact, good employers will be fully committed to your training once you are working for them. Recruiters are therefore often making judgements about an applicant's capacity to learn quickly, and both their potential to progress rapidly and the depth of their commitment to the organisation.

The interest and commitment that you demonstrate during an application can signal that you have the motivation to learn and grow into the role, and that you have the drive and desire to take on greater responsibility and stay with the company. When researching graduate opportunities, do ask organisations about the training they provide for new hires, however being able to talk about even small steps that you have taken to enhance your industry-relevant skills and knowledge will improve your applications and place you ahead of many candidates.

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It is good to broaden your knowledge through additional study and research, but if you extend your learning through a practical project this helps to build evidence of how you can apply your skills to good effect.

Follow your interests and career goals, and consider acquiring new skills relevant to the industry and role(s) in which you are most interested. For example, if you’re interested in working in:

  • Publishing: learn how to use InDesign or other desk top publishing tools;
  • Policy or think tank roles: learn how to use STATA and R statistical software;
  • Software engineering: make a start in learning to code, or building websites, take part in competitions and hackathons, and make any personal projects visible on Github;
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurship: The IDEA Engaging with Entrepreneurship programme can help you assess your key skills, reflect on your learning, and build a permanent record of skill development activities;

  • Data analysis: learn more advanced techniques in Excel or start to explore R and Python which are widely used for advanced analysis of large datasets.

You shouldn’t have to pay. There are many resources and courses available online that are both free and excellent, particularly programmes for beginners and refresher or intermediate learning courses. More advanced courses can be highly specialised and are more likely to involve a fee, but do research whether there are any free options. Places you can start looking include:

  • As a student at Oxford, Molly, the University’s IT Services Learning Platform, offers free access to a vast array of options, including full access to Linkedin Learning.
  • Look for MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and other free courses, but make a judgement about the quality of the provider. Reputable sites, such as OpenLearn (from the UK’s Open University), Future Learn and Coursera offer long and short courses from many of the world’s top universities, and many are free.
  • Find short, free open-access training courses and ‘virtual internships’, for example with the Bright Network or those posted by leading companies in law, consulting and finance on Forage. These allow students to try sector specific programmes to develop skills and test their interest in the industry.    
  • Join a student society and participate in training offered by them – if there isn’t anything yet, why not set up a training programme for the society and invite support from alumni and employers in the sector?

Remember, the goal is to begin to develop industry-relevant skills or technical knowledge and expertise beyond your degree. Any applicant who has developed their skills independently will stand out as having demonstrated real interest and motivation for the sector or role, and this can be the key that unlocks an internship or full-time opportunity.

The websites mentioned above offer a very a wide range of course subjects and content, and it is important to have some idea about the skill(s) you are trying to learn and the level of expertise you wish to gain. Be led by your research of the individual field, business sector and role(s) that you are targeting.

  • Start with the Occupation and Sector briefings from the Careers Service, which provide ideas and resources for building your skills and gaining experience.
  • Look at job profiles on graduate careers websites, such as Prospects and TargetJobs, and review the job descriptions for the roles you are considering.
  • Review information provided by professional and industry bodies, and also use industry publications and websites as they will often have information on training courses and tool kits that are relevant for the industry.
  • Seek information and ideas through the career pages of individual firms and look to see whether they are offering online and on-campus training events, or webinars and other information sessions where you might ask for ideas and advice.
  • Speak with alumni and others working in the sector: ask their advice on which skills it would be most useful to develop and the resources you could use.

Employers anticipate that graduates in general, and Oxford students in particular, will be capable and fast learners. If you do have relevant work experience which reflects the kind of work and day-to-day experience in the specific sector or functional role, that clearly offers an advantage in the application process. However, it is certainly valuable to develop and demonstrate your skills in other contexts, whether applying for initial work experience or full-time positions. 

Firstly, students will be using and developing many skills through their academic work. Taking an additional course or following self-directed learning beyond your degree studies can build theoretical knowledge and understanding, and also demonstrates commitment. Taking the next step and putting what you have learned into practice can provide persuasive evidence that you have the motivation, drive and skills that employers are seeking.  

In some settings, Oxford researchers, staff and students can now use Inkpath, a web-based tool, to guide their development. For example, anyone joining the Oxford’s IDEA Engaging with Entrepreneurship Programme can use Inkpath to signpost content and opportunities relevant to their entrepreneurial journey. The Inkpath platform allows you to assess your skills and set your own goals, and will direct you to relevant employability training provided by the University of Oxford. You can also add notes and personal reflections on your development and, if you want, offer feedback to training providers.     

As you complete any course or additional training, seek out opportunities or create practical experiences where you can apply your new skills. Consider running you own projects, volunteer to do something for an individual or organisation, or look for ways to become more hands-on in a society or any other extracurricular activity. 

Any practical application of your skills can be highly persuasive, whether it is:

  • short-term work experience through a micro-internship;
  • regular hands-on experience by volunteering or within a society role;
  • practical experience with an employability programme run by the Careers Service – such as The Oxford Strategy ChallengeThe Student Consultancy or Research Strategy Consultancy;
  • work experience and internships of all kinds – the closer this experience is to the sector, company and position that you are targeting, the more directly relevant the experience will appear to hiring organisations.


There are near limitless possibilities and it will be useful to take time to identify what is of greatest interest to you personally and of most relevance to prospective employers.

Molly, the University’s IT Services Learning Platform, provides access to thousands of free online courses across a vast range of activities. Courses range from tips and advice on skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership, to technical skills and tools from beginner and entry level to expert. It is well worth investing time to get to know the platform and investigate what is available there.

In 2020, the UK Government launched its Skills Toolkit campaign. This online platform is intended to help boost the nation’s digital skills, with numerous free courses at many different levels, for example on numeracy, marketing, finance, data analysis as well as a variety of digital skills.

When looking for ideas to target a specific field, use our sector-specific guidance and ask for advice from alumni working at the firms in which you are interested about what would be the most useful skills to develop. As an introduction, here are some possibilities:

  • Academia: Use Vitae’s ‘Researcher development Framework’ (RDF) and the different specific lens on the RDF to benchmark your existing skills and identify ways to build skills in leadership, knowledge exchange, public engagement, teaching, intrapreneurship and researcher mobility.
  • Advertising and Marketing: use the free Google Analytics Academy to develop an edge in the data collection and measurement tools behind online engagement.
  • Business analyst roles: develop intermediate or higher-level skills in Excel and explore data visualisation tools and methods with IT Services.
  • Business and General Management: the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Knowledge Bank on Leadership and Management provides guides and best practices covering a wide set of skills and challenges, including goal setting, problem solving, motivating teams as well as strategy implementation and decision making.
  • Cloud computing: AWS Educate, Amazon’s free and comprehensive resources for building skills in the cloud.
  • Data analysis and machine learning jobs: Start with basics in R, Python and SQL with Datacamp, LinkedIn Learning via Molly or other providers.
  • Digital skills: If you are looking for a starting point to develop these skills, consider Skills Toolkit, the UK government’s new online platform, offering free courses on numeracy, marketing, data analysis and digital skills (many levels).
  • Entrepreneurship: Use the Enterprising Oxford portal as a gateway to find regular and one-off events and support, including workshops on understanding IP, free online entrepreneurship resources from Vitae and work led by the Oxford Foundry.
  • Law: use Forage to undertake a "virtual internship”: free online courses provided by leading law firms (e.g. Clifford Chance, Linklaters, White & Case) that take about 6-8 hours to complete and which give students the chance to learn and practice the practical skills required of lawyers e.g. client pitching & communication, email & memo drafting, legal research, giving practical advice and so on.
  • Publishing: Learn InDesign or other useful publishing tools – try LinkedIn Learning via Molly.
  • TV and Film: Start by reviewing ideas and options for training with, an industry-led body that provides insight, career development and other opportunities to help grow for the screen industries.

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