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Career Advice

Best practices for reducing time to completion

The University of Toronto has created a series of faculty development workshops to help improve the supervisor-student relationship.


Graduate students have embraced professional development as an integral part of their education, but what about their supervisors and departments? As part of an initiative to reduce completion times the school of graduate studies at the University of Toronto hosted a series of faculty development workshops to optimize supervisory mentorship in graduate student research progress and professional development.

Content was targeted at faculty who currently have or are planning to train graduate students, faculty who are interested in establishing their own graduate professional development workshop series, course, or program for their department and graduate coordinators and department chairs.

Participants and feedback summary

The monthly workshop series consisted of nine two-hour workshops. Speakers were academic professors or industry professionals who were experts in the topic. Thirty-nine participants attended at least one workshop. Twenty-one participants attended more than one. Of those who attended at least one workshop and responded to the exit survey, 100 percent found the workshop helpful and would recommend to their peers.

Content of the workshops

Workshop I was “Why Professional Development for Graduate Students?” Discussion revolved around how PhD programs in the faculty of medicine are producing graduates who pursue both academic (~20 percent) and non-academic careers, and that the traditional apprenticeship model of PhD to professor may not be sufficient to produce well-rounded “whole scientists.” Best practices were discussed with interactive participation from the attendees, including the question “What are the core competencies to succeed as a graduate student and beyond?” with a comparison to the industry standard of 31 core competencies. Some resources in which students were to achieve these competencies were the following: graduate professional development workshops, MiTACs workshops, Life Sciences Ontario, 10,000 Coffees, Toastmaster’s, miniMBA, Graduate Management Consulting Association, Enactus Canada, Biotalent, Ontario Centre of Excellence internship funding, and the individual development plan (IDP).

Workshop II outlined how IDPs have been shown to increase research productivity, fewer conflicts, and a higher satisfaction (Hobin, CBE-Life SciEd, 2014), and successful campus practices for implementing IDPs.  In workshop III the faculty further discussed the implications of having an IDP at the University of Toronto with a recommendation that the Graduate life science and education office host a link to the science careers IDP and help introduce these concepts during departmental orientations; implemented this year.

Workshop IV “Helping Students with Effective Communications” highlighted the resources available to graduate students on campus for writing and presentation skills development, the three-minute thesis, the methods of storytelling at the job interview, and communicating to the lay public.

Workshop V discussed optimal approaches to crafting a job application with cover letter and résumé catered to the job description using CAR (challenge, action, result) statements.

In Workshop VI a discussion was led on helping students with creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship with insights from three graduate students who had started their own companies during or right after graduate school.

Workshop VII outlined the resources available to graduate students at the Graduate Conflict Resolution Centre, the unique features of conflict in graduate school, and tools faculty can use in dealing with conflict prevention, management, and resolution.

Workshop VIII was on the logistics of experiential learning opportunities for PhD students who all had part-time internship opportunities during their graduate training.  The last discussion included a guest speaker, Reinhart Reithmeier, who shared the findings of the 2016 10,000 PhDs Project and the implications of the outcome data for better preparing PhD graduates for careers in academia and beyond.

Summary and next steps

Based on the feedback and suggestions from the current year, our next steps for this program are to:

  1. Continue with similar workshops for the upcoming year,
  2. Raise awareness and create IDP forms for all of faculty of medicine graduate students and
  3. Create online videos highlighting impactful ideas regarding optimizing supervisory mentorship.

Although the impact of these initiatives on time to completion have yet to be determined, creating such a forum for faculty discussion on graduate student professional development and IDPs will most likely result in an increased number of graduate students with IDPs and a sense of empowerment and motivation for them to complete their graduate training in a timely fashion, ready to move to the next step of their pathway to diverse careers.

Nana Lee is an assistant professor in the departments of biochemistry and immunology, as well as director of mentorship and graduate professional development. Allan Kaplan is vice-dean of graduate and academic affairs in the faculty of medicine.

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  1. Ridha Ben-Rejeb / May 23, 2018 at 14:54

    Again nothing new, albeit, stating the obvious, there is a difference between know-how and how to act upon gained knowledge i.e proceeding to what to do and how to do it?
    Obviously, the gap has not been adequately addressed except in theory, even in light of the IDP unless both parties ( supervisor-supervisee) know what and how to implement the agreed IDP. Sometimes, life gets in the way and other external factors that the workshop avoided (un)intentionally related to research endeavors, career exigencies, department requirements, research approach, epistemological and ontological conflicts. My claims may not make sense but I intentionally wanted this message to remain perplexing and lacking clarity as this is exactly how I felt after reading about reducing a Ph.D. completion time ( vague). BTW, I am currently a Ph.D. student nearing my set completion time (4yr) and hoped the article could offer quick fixes: ) only to be once again disappointed.

  2. Martin Thibodeau / May 23, 2018 at 15:33

    You talk like a businessman who believes that universities are businesses whose mission is essentially and exclusively to train people to acquire skills in order to fulfil the so-called needs of the job market. You don’t seem to understand that universities are first and foremost institutions grounded in humanistic values and Ideals which rather aim to train young people to fully realize them and to become state of the art citizens. Unfortunately, your view, which has now been the dominant view for a while, is destroying the spirit of what universities are really about.

  3. Reinhart Reithmeier / May 27, 2018 at 05:43

    Supervisors often make the assumption that their graduate students will follow the same career path and become professors. The reality is that the majority of today’s PhD graduates will find employment outside academia, especially in the life and physical sciences. Instruments like the Individual Development Plan (IDP) help to ensure that students and their supervisors are literally on the same page and can have open and meaningful discussions about exploring diverse career paths.

  4. S. Giguere / May 28, 2018 at 21:19

    What an absurd response to the topic of employment, which is a far greater concern to graduate students nearing completion than ideals and being a state-of-the-art citizen. It is curious that you seem to think mere pragmatic concerns such as employment in one’s vocation is diametrically opposed to concern with being a good citizen.

    An educated person who is being paid to do what they love and what they excel at, all the while benefiting society by their productivity, contributions and taxes (among other things), is far better than an educated person who has to settle for employment outside their passion/talent. It is tragic if a student failed to plan their path to success under the delusion of lofty idealism or academic asceticism.

    If you have students, I wonder what their success rate is in securing employment within their field. If you are a student, you may just have a wake-up call after graduation.

    • Ridha Ben-Rejeb / November 24, 2018 at 04:37

      “If you have students, I wonder what their success rate is in securing employment within their field.”
      Interesting, since when supervisors are supposed to keep track of success rate of their own students. Securing an employment involves rational and irrational factors regardless of the IDP. While career planning is highly solicited , IDP purpose is often defeated for the sake of reaching the finish line (graduation) and getting off the supervisor’s serve list. When the following quote becomes a reality “If you are a student, you may just have a wake-up call after graduation.” I know some students who had a wake up call halfway through their academic journey seeing their graduate peers struggling to secure an employment. Many of them took their destiny into their own hands before even graduating when they independently designed their own road map as they see it fit ( like in my case). Bottom line IDP rests more on individuals desire and will rather than on academic institutions pathways planning.

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