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The Skills Agenda

Five best practices for graduate student professional development

How some Canadian research universities approach graduate professional development.


How can universities ensure that graduate students are receiving the training needed to be  transformative educators? In 2019-20, in my capacity as faculty fellow for the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning (GMCTL) at the University of Saskatchewan, I led the Graduate Transformative Skills Project. As part of my research, I conducted detailed interviews with graduate professional development professionals at 13 Canadian research universities known for their graduate skills training approaches. In this column, I summarize five of the best practices identified from those interviews.

Note: the text here is abridged and adapted from the full report. Please visit the full report for more details.

1. Coordinate cross-campus efforts to create a single graduate professional development hub

A challenge facing many universities is how to coordinate the various professional development training activities and opportunities available to graduate students across campus. One model that shows considerable success is a shared responsibility model, often referred to as a hub-and-spoke model. In this approach, the faculty of graduate studies serves as the coordinating body responsible for bringing together other campus partners offering professional development, including career services, the teaching and learning centre, the library and individual faculties/colleges/schools. In addition to coordinating existing programs, the cross-campus team can identify skills training gaps and opportunities to address such gaps.

The single hub offers convenience for graduate students, as they don’t need to figure out where on campus to look to find different services. Other advantages of the hub include calendar coordination and centralized communications. The hub-and-spoke model located in graduate studies meets graduate students’ desire to be distinctive as graduate students and can encourage them to access services they might not otherwise consider.

2. Develop a clear, focused skills development framework

When it comes to graduate career skills training, the interviewees were clear: create a simple structure and remember that less is more. Universities can use research, external stakeholder feedback and internal consultation to select three or four competency areas for skills development. Competency areas  mentioned regularly include innovation, which involves creativity and entrepreneurship; communication; leadership; and project management.

3. Establish completion records that lead to a credential

Universities vary in how they record participation and completion of professional skills training. Completion records include letters of completion, co-curricular records and formal micro-credentials such as badges or certificates. Formal microcredentials are seen as having the most external value, particularly if the credential identifies a specific career competency or skill of value to a future employer.

4. Establish a mix of elective program formats and provide open-access online resources

Should graduate professional training be in-person, online, intensive, and/or spread over a semester? The universities I spoke with reported numerous program formats to be effective, including annual intensive professional development events, ongoing programming and half-day workshops. What can be particularly helpful is to ensure students have choices through a menu of options. Some students lack the flexibility in their schedules to attend programs or for other reasons are not able to participate. For these students, an online repository of resources, including recorded talks and trainings, is invaluable.

5. Measure effectiveness and continue to adapt

Interviewees spoke of the challenges of knowing the effectiveness of graduate professional skills training. Deliberate attention must be paid to defining what constitutes success and evaluation should be central to program planning.

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

What is your own university’s approach to graduate student professional development? Please let me know in the comments below. And for additional teaching, writing and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her next book, For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities, is coauthored with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young and will be released by the University of Alberta Press in March 2024.
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