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Professional development program teaches valuable soft skills to science PhDs

Special course at U of T helps students to become “market ready”


One tagline for University of Toronto’s Graduate Professional Development program is “preparing trainees to be market ready.” The program was developed in 2012 for the department of biochemistry by Nana Lee, a lecturer at U of T and now GPD director, and Reinhart Reithmeier, former chair of U of T’s biochemistry department and now special adviser to the dean, graduate skills development and engagement, in the school of graduate studies.  (Dr. Lee also started a similar GPD program for the department of immunology in 2014, which was made mandatory as part of a seminar series for all graduate students.) The course addresses the specific challenges of transitioning from PhD studies into the workforce – whether that path leads to a professor position, a job at a private company or anywhere else. The course drills down into specific soft skills, presentation proficiency and plenty of individual attention; Dr. Lee meets with students once a year until they find employment.

Before developing the program Dr. Reithmeier was responsible for writing a review of the biochemistry department every five years; he realized that they didn’t have any outcome data for masters and PhD graduates, a common problem across universities. “Graduate programs need to do a better job of tracking where their people go, where they end up,” he says. With the help of social media, his team tracked down everyone who graduated during his time as department head and discovered that only 15 percent of graduates had become professors – a result that shocked Dr. Reithmeier.  “What about the other 85 percent? What are they doing? Well, they are doing incredible things – but, the problem was I didn’t know about it, the professors didn’t know about it and, most importantly, our graduate students didn’t know about it,” he says. “So the question is: what can you do with a PhD in biochemistry? Lots, it turns out, but students don’t know that.”

The GPD program is a for-credit course, so students “take it seriously,” says Dr. Lee. The program develops and nurtures skills like networking, developing cover letters and resumés, and learning how to package your experience and skills in a way that makes you stand out to potential employers. It’s an important program for students who find themselves unprepared for the “reality” of postgraduate life – especially considering a university’s career centre is often seen as a resource for undergrads only and as a result is underutilized by students who need it most.

Individual classes focus on effective communications and professionalism; cover letter and resumé writing; networking and leadership; mentorship and presentation skills. All of these elements come together with the goal of preparing the student for the workplace. A key component in every class is connecting your experience and abilities to the bigger picture: what makes you capable, and how do you present this in a way that makes you marketable to potential employers? With resumé writing, for example, “it’s not enough to just list everything you’ve done,” says Dr. Lee. “Effective resumés tell a story. What was the impact you made? What were the results that came out of your actions?” During the student presentations, Dr. Lee brings in panel judges who are not in a science field; the key is to succinctly and clearly explain your idea to a layperson. “It’s important that students can communicate how their work fits in to the rest of the world,” says Dr. Lee.

This type of “real-world readiness” program is cropping up in other places as well (for example, the Student2Scholar program developed for the social sciences at Western University, Queen’s and U of T, and UBC’s Graduate Pathways to Success program). Dr. Lee and Dr. Reithmeier have also created a guidebook for other departments looking to implement a similar program. There’s already demonstrated interest in the course at University of Ottawa, University of Connecticut, Western University, Syracuse University and others across Canada and the U.S.

So far, 167 trainees have gone through the GPD program in biochemistry and immunology. They are required to fill out an exit survey, and all graduates reported that they would recommend it to peers and most think it should be mandatory for PhD students in the first three years of study. While most of the GPD students are still in training, 19 trainees have made it into careers (six into small company biotech, five into larger pharma or chemical companies, five into business and three into NPOs) without long transitional periods. “The normal pathway for PhDs is to do a post-doctoral fellowship, but with this class, they’ve gone straight from their PhD to jobs, so the postdoc is now the plan B,” says Dr. Reithmeier.

One of the most important elements of this program is the level of feedback they receive on their writing, presentation and communication skills. “I have students create a LinkedIn page, but I won’t connect with them until I approve it,” laughs Dr. Lee. Along with enhancing their social media profiles, students are tasked with searching out someone who has a career that they want. They set up an informational interview and then report to the class about what they learned from the individual and the experience. As for the constructive feedback she gives after presentations, Dr. Lee says, “it’s better they hear it from me now rather than later when they’re applying for jobs.”

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  1. Faiz Ahmad / January 25, 2016 at 10:09

    Article contains good information for developing soft skill graduates.Long ago, when I was pursuing for my Ph.D by research. My supervisor used to say, we prepare graduate to compete any challenge in their career. Now I am following similar training philosophy for students working under my direction for their Ph.D. I develop their working and presentation skills highlighting issues and giving their solution.At the end, I lead them to come up with an engineering application of their research (materials/product) for the market. So far, I am very successful in my way of training Ph.Ds/MS.

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