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Professional development for grad students

Skills training gives PhD students a boost, whether they find work inside or outside academia.


Nathalie Magnus is pursuing her doctoral degree at McGill University’s division of experimental medicine, one of an elite group hand-picked by pediatric oncologist Janusz Rak to participate in ground-breaking research on the interaction between blood vessels and tumour growth. She serves as a vice-president of the Canadian Society for Life Science Research, a national student-run organization dedicated to the development of the next generation of scientific leaders, and her research has been published in the Journal of the American Society of Hematology, among other scholarly publications.

It would appear that her future is golden. Even so, Ms. Magnus and her accomplished cohorts take nothing for granted about their long-term prospects. “We are all learning that we need to do other things on top of just our PhD.

“It’s not enough to get us an amazing job. We need other skills as well,” says Ms. Magnus, an enthusiastic participant in McGill’s SkillSets program for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. The initiative supplements academic skills with professional skills they will not necessarily learn in the labs or lecture halls.

Among the course offerings are: Preparing a Business Plan; Talking it up Without Dumbing it Down – How to Communicate with Non-Experts; Getting What You Want – the Art of Negotiation; and Computer Programming for Science Graduate Students, a seminar that helps students write code to analyze their data.

“The programming skill saves time, adds to lab efficiency, and helps ensure data sets and analysis protocols are transferable when a senior PhD leaves a lab – professional development meets succession planning,” says David Syncox, McGill’s education officer for graduate and postdoctoral studies. Now entering its third year, the SkillSets program is immensely popular, with attendance surpassing 5,000 in the last academic year.

Similar initiatives have sprung up at several other campuses across the country in recent years, in response to pressure from private-sector employers, public-sector employers and the graduate students and postdocs themselves. With Canadian universities pumping out far more PhDs than there are openings for new professors, the vast majority of graduate students go off campus in search of careers.

“There have always been fewer jobs [in academia] than there are PhDs, so PhD students have always had to adapt themselves. Where we have been slow as institutions is in recognizing what we can do to help them adapt, and I think it is a role that more and more of us are taking on,” says Douglas Peers, a history professor, dean of arts at the University of Waterloo, and past president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies.

“Over the last two or three years, it has become much more of a topic for graduate deans everywhere, so there are a lot of initiatives happening,” he says. Typically, universities are providing training in communications, leadership, organization and management, “and most of us are experimenting with different formats.” Dr. Peers adds that these skills are just as important for success in academia today as they are in non-academic careers.

The University of British Columbia’s Graduate Pathways to Success program offers a suite of non-credit workshops covering everything from pointers on how to craft funding applications to sessions on working effectively in teams, networking and emotional intelligence. A program on entrepreneurship was added to the mix last spring.

“We really do feel an increasing tension in graduates about where their careers are going. It’s palpable,” says Susan Porter, dean pro tem of UBC’s faculty of graduate studies.

“When I graduated from my PhD program [in pathology and laboratory medicine in 1988], virtually every single person in the class went on to academia, it was just a question of where,” she recalls. “Now, it’s like ‘Oh. My. God. I have no idea what I am going to do. There are no jobs in academia. What am I going to do with my life?’”

Elizabeth Wallace, manager, special projects, in UBC’s faculty of graduate studies, says the goal is “to engage the students so that they can emerge, not just well-prepared in their disciplines, but as well-rounded people who can go on . . . and contribute to society.

“I think because they hear some of the things about the job market, they may not realize that they are capable of doing wonderful things. I don’t want them to go into panic mode and just start taking McJobs because they think there is nothing out there for them,” says Dr. Wallace, who earned her PhD in education. The program has about 30 events a term “and we are always oversubscribed.”

Universities that offer professional development sessions usually bring in outside employers a couple of times a year to talk about career opportunities outside academia and the skills needed to take advantage of them. McGill student Ms. Magnus, for example, participated in a heavily attended seminar on job opportunities at the United Nations.

“If we just educate them as clones of professors, they have a harder time entering the market in general,” says Jean Nicolas, who held Canada’s first research chair in graduate student training in the department of mechanical engineering at Université de Sherbrooke. (He is now professor emeritus and the chair has been replaced by a centre for improving training for doctoral students, with a view to expanding its reach beyond the engineering faculty.)

Dr. Nicolas, who was named a 3M Teaching Fellow for his pioneering work in the field, says skills-development programs should be customized according to the academic discipline but should be widely available. “In my faculty, the engineering faculty, some of these courses are compulsory now. For instance, innovation and project management is compulsory.”

Yet other countries may be forging ahead of Canada in the area of professional development for graduate students. UWaterloo’s Dr. Peers says universities in the United Kingdom “have really embedded what you would call professional, transferrable skills in their expectations of all their graduate programs that they fund, so they have really pushed ahead on that.”

While an increasing number of Canadian universities make these supplementary programs available to anyone who is interested – at little or no cost to students – Dr. Peers is not convinced that they should be mandatory.

“One of my concerns [about the U.K. model] is that they are building more and more expectations into the degree, but the degree itself is very, very short.” Typically, in the U.K., there is a maximum of four years’ funding for a PhD, he says, and during that time the student will have to acquire all these other skills as well.

For postdoctoral scholars in Canada, the training varies from place to place, with some universities offering professional skills training “in addition to what you are getting in the lab,” says Angela Crawley, an immunologist affiliated with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and an executive of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars.

“It is all voluntary training,” she says. “You have to agree upon taking this training with your adviser and there is sometimes some resistance, depending on the culture that you are immersed in” – whether you’re expected to spend all your time in the lab or you can also add career training. Dr. Crawley would like to see a more consistent approach to career-development support for grad students and postdocs.

Two of Canada’s major research funding agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, are supporting the training agenda by making professional skills development a condition for receiving funding under some of their programs. For instance, universities applying for grants under NSERC’S Collaborative Research and Training Experience program (known as CREATE) must specify how they will develop the skills their graduate students and postdoctoral scholars will need to make to a successful transition to the workplace.

“It’s a different way of thinking,” says Isabelle Blain, vice-president, research grants and scholarships at NSERC. With the CREATE program, “an innovative training program is what makes it a successful proposal as opposed to other programs that are more centred around the professors themselves and what they would like to get out of their students,” explains Ms. Blain, a microbiologist.

Dalhousie University was awarded a $1.65-million research grant under the CREATE program last year to research renewable energy production and storage. It has established partnerships with 3M, a technology company that has long been associated with postsecondary education in Canada and the United States, with Toshiba in Japan and with other private-sector employers to provide master’s and PhD students with internships at corporate research labs as part of their training, says Mary Anne White, director of the research program and professor in Dalhousie’s department of chemistry.

Such industry placements are still not very common in Canada, says Dr. White. “It’s an area where we are a bit behind other countries.”

In the corporate labs, students also learn about such matters as intellectual property management – “the sorts of things that students don’t normally see in their programs but are very useful in industry,” she adds.

This “value-added” training will definitely give these students an edge and benefit their future employers, agrees Ms. Blain, who looks for more than strong scientific and engineering skills when she hires people to work at NSERC.

“Of course they have to be well-versed in their own field,” she says. “But it’s the other skills around that that make our employees so much more effective – their ability to interact with the community and advance their own projects and make things happen at NSERC.

“The personal and professional skills really make a huge difference.”

Virginia Galt
Virginia Galt is a Toronto-based freelancer.
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  1. Fiona Downey / September 13, 2011 at 15:12

    It’s great to see University Affairs pick up on a move that is obviously working its way across a number of universities.

    Here at Concordia University, we have just introduced an initiative we are calling GradProSkills, in response to calls from the workforce as well as Graduate students themselves to expand their range of skills.

    Workshops and online tools tackling subjects such as effective leadership, communication, stress and time management are among the resources offered through what our Dean of Graduate Studies, Graham Carr, likes to call a “professional toolkit”.

  2. Janet McDonald / October 5, 2011 at 08:52

    The Dalhousie NSERC CREATE program to which the article refers is Dalhousie Research in Energy, Advanced Materials and Sustainability (DREAMS). The DREAMS program is open to both undergraduate and graduate students, and to postdoctoral fellows in Chemistry, Physics and Mechanical Engineering. In addition to industrial internships, DREAMS holds PD sessions on topics such as Intellectual Property and how to communicate your research to the media. Please visit our website:

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