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Career Advice

Lessons learned from a grad course on professional development

Transforming graduate education.


In 2012, the department of biochemistry at the University of Toronto launched a for-credit course in graduate professional development (GPD). Enrolment was limited to 20 graduate students to provide an intimate and interactive learning environment. The course stressed the need to develop a broad skill set, well beyond the technical expertise to perform research. It also engaged alumni who described their career paths and provided networking opportunities. Six two-hour sessions, each followed by a networking session, were held every two weeks on six topics: success in academia, success outside academia and career transitions, importance of mentorship, research ethics, how to choose and succeed as a postdoctoral fellow, and how to cultivate essential soft skills during graduate school.

Among the many insights generated through this new course and the student feedback, four themes emerged that, we believe, could transform graduate education:

1. Communicate in lay terms
Communication skills are at the top of every list of skills needed in every job sector. Grad students and postdocs present excellent scientific talks about their research to their peers. But when asked to pitch their ideas to a group of potential investors, as in our course, most can’t do it. Students need to learn to convey the excitement and passion they have for research to the public, venture capitalists, even politicians. We plan to provide a forum for grad students and postdocs from different disciplines to meet and discuss their work in a way that everyone can understand.

2. Write for different audiences
Graduate students in life sciences are trained to use a strict formula to write up their research: title-summary-introduction-methods-results-discussion-conclusion-references, plus figures and tables showing the results. But when asked to summarize it for the general public, most had trouble finding the right language to tell a story. Writing for the non-expert is an essential skill, and convincing decision makers or investors about the value of research is important to keep research funding flowing and growing.

3. Build a personal network
To match their skills to the right career, most grad students need to create their own job descriptions. To do this, they need to build an extensive network during graduate training – well beyond their supervisor plus a few researchers in their field. LinkedIn is a start. Connecting with the program’s alumni provides key links outside academia as well as mentorship opportunities. Successful PhD students proactively make these kinds of links, often beginning with an invitation for a phone chat or a coffee. This kind of network building lets students learn how others with similar backgrounds made career transitions in their lives. Alumni may know someone with an opening for a PhD graduate, which can lead to a first job. Some alumni may become mentors who can provide career insights and help them make key connections. Students need to learn that networking is not “making friends with job titles.” Each networking opportunity is an informational interview and an introduction to a potential mentor – not a Facebook social climb.

4. Create a free mobility zone
Students need to spend some time out of the lab, to become “market ready” after graduation. The GPD course helps to bring the real world into the classroom. One idea we’re exploring is “mobility” programs: universities would give grad students and postdocs mobility grants to travel to meetings, workshops, another lab or a job placement. Canadian universities could also create a “free mobility zone,” where students move be-tween universities and take specialized courses, learn techniques and participate in internships.

Moving forward
The inaugural cohort for the course gave very positive feedback. Suggestions include creating a guidebook for students and instructors and expanding mentorship training to faculty, who often are unaware of the diverse career opportunities available to graduates. We plan to repeat the course every year, so that every grad student in the department takes the course during their MSc or PhD program. The course’s ultimate impact won’t be known until our cohorts graduate and enter the work force; keeping track of course participants as they follow their pathways is a key feature to evaluate the course and measure its impact.

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  1. Jen / March 3, 2015 at 18:30

    This is fantastic! What a great initiative with promising results. The skills and experiences built into this course are ones that students will need, whatever career path they decide to take. The old graduate training model doesn’t work in the 21st century, and it’s wonderful to see professional development courses such as this being piloted. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Nana Lee / March 4, 2015 at 22:23

      Thanks for the support, Dr. Polk! Our course is no longer a pilot, but part of the curriculum in Biochemistry and Immunology, Faculty of Medicine, U of Toronto. Happy to be helping!