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From PhD to Life

How supervisors can prepare graduate students for diverse careers

Engaging students in community partnerships is one way for them to get an authentic experience in a non-academic context.


This is a guest post by Penny Pexman. Dr. Pexman is a professor of psychology and associate vice-president, research, at the University of Calgary. Her research interests include cognitive development, psycholinguistics, and cognitive neuroscience.

I am a cognitive psychologist. My graduate training was based in a laboratory, where we focused on isolating psychological variables of interest using behavioural tasks and paradigms. Success was a function of time spent in the lab running experiments and writing papers, and for the most part the only community I engaged during my training was an academic one.

My training was typical of most graduate programs. These programs focus on building skills and expertise relevant for tenure track jobs, but it has become clear to me (and, of course, to many others) that graduate training needs to shift to better prepare PhD graduates for the diversity of careers they may pursue.

It is now well documented that only a portion of PhD graduates will secure tenure track positions (e.g., The University of Toronto’s 10,000 PhDs project), and that many PhD graduates will pursue careers outside of the postsecondary education sector.

How can graduate supervisors, who received traditional academic training themselves, prepare their graduate students for diverse careers?

One approach that has been taken, in my own lab and in other places, is to facilitate opportunities for students to take their training beyond the laboratory and to engage in community partnerships. This provides students with authentic experience in non-academic contexts.

As a graduate supervisor at the University of Calgary I have developed several research partnerships that have given graduate students opportunities to use their expertise to solve problems and answer questions for community partners. Our partners have included an educational technology company, the public library, and several other organizations in the not-for-profit sector. These partnerships have ranged in scale: from small-scale projects involving a series of consultations and development of program improvement recommendations, to larger-scale partnerships, with user experience data collection, analysis, and multiple stakeholder meetings (for which we secured external funding, through NSERC Engage). In all cases, the partnerships have given students opportunities to see how their skills and expertise can be useful outside of the lab, and to apply their training in new contexts. The partnerships have given our community partners opportunities to see first-hand how a PhD student could be useful to them.

Our partnerships have not led to many of the traditional academic outputs, but they have broadened the impact of our work and, most importantly, they have led to employment opportunities for the students involved, either with the partner or with related organizations. The employment opportunities have been varied, including positions such as data scientist, research manager, and literacy program facilitator. These are positions where students are using their research skills and expertise to contribute to organizations outside of the academic sector. To me, as a graduate supervisor, these are successful outcomes: I want my students to be engaged in careers that allow them to use and further refine their skills, regardless of whether those are traditional academic careers.

However, I have encountered some criticisms for this approach to research training; for instance, a recent grant reviewer expressed disappointment that so many of my former students were employed locally and not in international faculty positions. I was successful in the grant competition so this concern may not have been shared by other adjudicators but clearly there are some who hold the view that tenure track faculty positions are the preferred outcome. As we shift the way we train graduate students we also need to shift our expectations about training outcomes to include diverse careers that may largely be outside of the postsecondary sector.

I have pursued community partnerships as an individual graduate supervisor, but in other places this approach has been implemented program-wide. For instance, the neuroscience and applied cognitive science program at the University of Guelph has introduced a practicum that is required for MSc students and elective for PhD students. While many of the MSc students complete the practicum on campus, in other labs, there is a preference for doctoral students to pursue off-campus practicum experiences in order to build professional skills and networks. These practicum experiences have helped trainees to find employment after graduation in research hospitals, government agencies, and industry.

At the University of Waterloo in the cognitive psychology graduate program, the recently-introduced applied practicum in cognitive psychology course provides students with the opportunity to work in an industry position related to cognitive psychology. As the cognitive research area head, associate professor Evan Risko designed the course to allow students to apply their research expertise to new problems and to expand their professional networks.

While the course is relatively new, students have already been placed in instructional design, behavioural science consulting and education-related positions. Indeed, students reported that an offer of employment was a typical outcome of the practicum. Recent University of Waterloo cognitive psychology PhD graduate Greta James articulated additional benefits of her practicum experience:

The outside world is very different from what goes on in research inside the university. After many years as a graduate student in an academic setting I lost perspective on the outside world. It felt as though my skill set was common place. My practicum really opened my eyes to what value I might have in the workplace. Things I considered basic knowledge after years in academics were not common knowledge at all in the work place. Introduction of research skill sets into industry has a lot to offer and my practicum made this obvious to me.

Of course, there are many disciplines where community partnerships have always been common practice, but to my knowledge this is a relatively new development in cognitive psychology. Based on these initial efforts, I offer some suggestions about making partnerships happen for those in disciplines, like mine, where this isn’t common practice:

    • Start with an honest assessment of the skills your students have and careful consideration of the private and public sector partners that might benefit from those skills.
    • Commit time to develop the strong relationships required for effective research partnerships. I have engaged with my students in planning meetings with the community partners, to learn what goals and problems each partner has that could be framed as research questions, and to discuss how our research expertise could help them.
    • Reflect on what a successful partnership will look like to you and to the partner a few months or years down the road. Discuss those expectations as the partnership develops.
    • Consider how you will fund the work (e.g., small-scale partnership grants like SSHRC’s Partnership Engage Grants, or MITACS Accelerate).

Although it wasn’t part of our own training, individual supervisors and graduate programs can shift the training of today’s graduate students to help prepare them for diverse careers. It will be important that the implicit and explicit messages we give graduate students about “success” reflect that diversity.

Maren Wood
L. Maren Wood earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel hill. Maren delivers interactive workshops to help graduate students prepare for a non-faculty job search. In addition to her research, Maren provides one-to-one career coaching to PhDs.
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