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Unpacking professional development for graduate students


A longer version of this blog post originally appeared on Rachael Cayley’s blog, Explorations of Style.

During graduate school, many students seek out courses or workshops to improve their academic or professional skills; these offerings are often characterized as “professional development.” Most of us first became familiar with the term as something designed for already-working people. That is, professional development is necessary precisely because the original training or education is complete. After a number of years in a job, we benefit from professional development because it can offer us innovative ways of approaching what we do, thus making us more confident, competent, or engaged. When we start thinking of professional development for graduate students — that is, for people who are currently in school learning how to do something — we have to confront an obvious question: Why do we need professional development for people who are still in school? Isn’t that what school is for? If we are to offer professional development for graduate students, we clearly have to be reflective about the process.

Traditionally, graduate programs have been good at training students to do a certain sort of academic work, but less good at supporting a wider range of ancillary skills. In what follows, I am going to divide these skills in three categories: integral; professional academic; and professional non-academic.

Integral skills are those that allow us to communicate our research effectively. These skills — writing effectively, understanding how to make presentations, being able to communicate research to different audiences — will indubitably help students in their professional lives, but they are different from other forms of professional development because of their inherent connection to being a successful student.

Professional academic skills are those that prepare students first for the academic job market and then for an academic job. The key element here is, of course, teaching; as so many have observed, a PhD is often expected to prepare us for teaching despite the fact that the actual teacher training component of doctoral education can be pretty hit and miss. Similarly, talking about how to apply for funding and how to prepare for scholarly publishing can help with the transition from student to professor. However, given the current state of the job market, preparing for the job of being an academic isn’t sufficient; graduate students also need to be prepared for the travails of an increasingly fraught job search process.

Lastly, professional non-academic skills are those that bridge the gap between graduate training and the jobs that many graduate students are going to find — by choice or by necessity — outside of the traditional professorial role. We know that doctoral training is often extremely transferable, but we need to clarify those pathways and facilitate the translation that allows graduate students to frame their existing skills as valuable for a wider range of professional opportunities.

These three species of professional development obviously involve a great deal of overlap. Some of the skills will operate in all three areas because they are fundamental skills. Some of the skills will be readily transferable: a good understanding of oral presentation skills, for instance, will allow us to make many different sorts of effective presentations. And some of these skills themselves will assist students in understanding the very nature of transferable skills. As an example, when I teach students about writing for different audiences, they are learning two things: at a basic level, they are learning to adjust their writing to suit its potential audience; at a higher level, they are also potentially learning to be more reflective about the nature of the skills that they are developing in graduate school.

As we think about these three species of professional development and the complex demands of graduate study, we also need to think about the diverse needs of different graduate student constituencies. We can divide graduate students by discipline; this division can be a broad one between the sciences and the humanities or something finer that recognizes the unique professional demands of different graduate programs. We can divide graduate students by linguistic background; some students are learning to write suitable academic prose in their first language while others are accomplishing the same task in a subsequent language.

We can divide students by degree; the needs of doctoral students are often different from those of Master’s students, especially from those in terminal Master’s degrees. In order to tackle needs spread along so many different spectrums, it is very helpful to have a deeper understanding of the types of things we are trying to impart. Clarifying our understanding of what professional development might mean for graduate students can help us to design suitable offerings and explain those offerings in terms that make sense to the many constituencies involved. In the end, offering these professional skills is one way of ensuring that all graduate students — each of whom represents a unique spot among many overlapping measures of identity — can have the chance to thrive in graduate school and beyond.

Rachael Cayley is an associate professor (teaching stream) in the Office of English Language and Writing Support at the school of graduate studies at the University of Toronto. She has a blog on academic writing for graduate students, and you can follow her on Twitter at @explorstyle.

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  1. Sheri oberman / August 29, 2016 at 13:37

    The tack-on and optional nature of professional development offerings in graduate programs shows up the problem with a lack of ongoing renewal in programs. No less an advisor to the white house insists doctoral programs not go beyond the expectation of a dissertation. Students don’t have to complete 3 Minute thesis summaries or any other form of professional development to get the degree.

    Throwing in professional development’ options in a grad education masks the problem of no real, ongoing and comprehensive effort to modernize graduate education for scholarship in the 21st century. This is an old argument. Save for scholars of graduate education who rail against it, graduate schools will pump out and promo the prof skills courses apace without changing underlying grad ed practices. In fact, grad schools are wont to look at high attrition and long times to completion from which grad dtudrnts suffer. Sure tack on the grad prof skills courses..That works if grad schools don’t want to do anything fundamentally different.

  2. Michele / September 9, 2019 at 10:22

    Most helpful.
    Thank you Dr. R. Cayley.