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Responsibilities May Include

Putting the “professional” in professional development

How the Consortium of Canadian Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators was born.


While the field of professional and career development for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows has grown tremendously in the past five years, it is much older than that. The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto created their Research Training Centre in 1996 to provide professional development to trainees. Most universities and teaching hospitals across Canada have created co-curricular professional development programs in the past decade in response to a 2008 working paper and a 2012 report from the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS). However, many of the offerings within those co-curricular programs have been delivered since the 1980s and 90s (e.g. Teaching in Higher Education 500 at the University of Toronto has been running since 1994).

In 2014, Jackie Amsden, who was at Simon Fraser University at the time, began reaching out to other professional development administrators at the University of British Columbia (Jacqui Brinkman), University of Calgary (Tara Christie) and the University of Toronto (me) to develop  and share best practices. Starting in May 2014, we began informal conference calls that quickly blossomed from those first four universities to a fully national conversation that includes over 30 institutions. We all met formally for the first time at the CAGS conference in Calgary in 2015 and came up with terms of reference. From that, the Consortium of Canadian Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators (CCGSPDA) was born, and our growth shadows the creation of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC) in the United States, which started in 1987.

The field of graduate student professional and career development has reached a point of maturation in its professionalization that we now have two closed groups. There’s also a handful of graduate students at Canadian universities who are researching and writing about professional and career development programs; this is in addition to the growing body of research published by program administrators (e.g. the special issue of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education in 2014).

In the past two years there have been several important contributions to the theory and abstraction of how we think and talk about career and professional development for graduate students. Two efforts are worth noting.

First, Rachael Cayley’s 2016 blog post “Unpacking Professional Development for Graduate Students” is a delightful work that clarifies the language around professionalization and professional development. She makes the point that professional development is individual, whereas professionalization is something that happens to or within a discipline. For instance, a civil servant taking language courses in order to work bilingually five or 10 years into their career is developing professionally. On the other hand, professional development administration as an occupation is currently “professionalizing”, but so too are English PhD candidates when they take a proseminar in their department.

The proseminar and placement officers (both of which are more common in humanities than elsewhere) have traditionally focused on building research, teaching and service skills for PhD candidates to succeed in their graduate program. More recently, faculty who lead proseminars take a longer view and discuss the transferability of graduate skills to faculty work and, even more recently, the transferability of academic skills to a broader range of careers.

Given that professional development is language and practice borrowed from the corporate and public service realms, Dr. Cayley points out the complex policy and strategy conversations that accompany a decision to incorporate professional development at universities: Do we need to revise core curriculum? Should employers be the ones providing professional development? There’s also a reflexive version of these questions for professional and career development administrators as we professionalize our work – what role should CCGSPDA and GCC play in providing professional development for members and who should determine if standardized credentials are necessary for those doing this work?

The second important contribution to the theory and practice of professional development administration is a two-phase study that CAGS has initiated in conjunction with the CCGSPDA and backing from the Tri-Councils. The first phase (Graduate Professional Development: Towards a National Strategy) investigates and catalogues as much of the existing professional development as possible; it is an update of the 2012 report and a picture of what exists across the country – or rather, what existed at the moment the survey was conducted.

This first phase is notable, because one of the biggest challenges identified for graduate professional and career development programs is the lack of clear communication both within and between universities. Students often have no clue that there are programs on their campus to help them. When those programs are offered by campus organizations that also serve undergraduates, the perception can often be “there’s nothing here for me.” This is a missed opportunity for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and program administrators.

One of the reasons students and postdocs may not be aware of these initiatives is that faculty in their department might not know what is provided centrally. Many admirable faculty or departments fill the perceived gap by creating their own programs, often in adapted proseminars. However, the best results for participants usually results when faculty partner with administrative staff who are aware of resources and best practices locally, nationally and internationally.

The second phase of the CAGS study will be pushing the discussion of graduate professional development forward. It looks at how we might assess program effectiveness and participant learning. Discussion of the draft report of the second phase is on the agenda of the upcoming CAGS/CCGSPDA meeting in Quebec City on November 8, 2017, so this is still an ongoing conversation.

Moving forward, the CCGSPDA intends to:

  1. Encourage a national voice in conversations about graduate professional and career development, in part by creating this Responsibilities May Include article series;
  2. Share resources and best practices;
  3. Collaborate to provide cross-institutional programming; and
  4. Collaborate in the development of resource program funding for national opportunities.

For anyone interested in joining the conversation, please join us in Quebec City in November. Many of us also participate in the GCC, which will be hosted by a Canadian institution for the first time in June 2020 at the U of T.

Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is the project manager and one of the authors of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development: Toward a National Strategy report for CAGS and GPDN. He is also the manager of graduate completion and postdoctoral services at the University of Toronto.
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