A group of Ontario universities has created a free online learning platform to help graduate students develop professional skills – no matter the profession they may choose.
The Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills Training, or GPS, launched Mygradskills.ca on Sept. 7. The site offers graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at Ontario universities access to 18 free, self-paced modules on topics such as research management, converting a CV to a resumé, mentoring undergrads, mental health and wellness, and a primer on intellectual property.
The idea is to give graduate students the opportunity to develop the sorts of skills they’ll need to succeed “both in their graduate programs and beyond,” said Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University. Traditionally, the expectation has been that a PhD trains you to become a faculty member, she said. “But, the faculty jobs aren’t there anymore. And frankly a lot of the graduate students don’t want those jobs anymore.”
Though some modules build on each other (for example, there’s a basic and an advanced module for online teaching), users are encouraged to follow the mini-courses in a sequence that makes sense for them, “whenever and wherever they want to,” said Dr. Sekuler.
Coleen Even, a PhD student in French studies at University of Waterloo, was recruited to test the site during its beta phase this spring. She figured it was a good opportunity to start branching out beyond her research. “I want to diversify because I don’t know where I’ll wind up,” she said. “I want to make sure I have something in my pocket.”
Ms. Even worked through modules on lesson planning and on academic and professional communication for new researchers; the latter is already proving useful: “It helped me take a step back and see how I can better see my project and how to present it for a bigger audience.” She noted that foreign-language learners in particular may benefit from the visual cues and the ability to start, stop and rewind at will.
While the online component is a major draw, the point of Mygradskills.ca isn’t to replace on-campus career services, said Sue Horton, former associate provost of graduate studies at University of Waterloo. Dr. Horton was involved in developing the platform, and she said it was conceived as a tool to complement what’s already offered on campus.
The site, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, is a collaboration between McMaster, Waterloo, Queen’s University, University of Guelph, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto and Western University under the GPS consortium umbrella. It is currently available only to grad students and postdocs at Ontario universities, but GPS is working on making some resources available for free to the general public and is in talks to make the modules available in multiple languages across the country.
Dr. Sekuler reported that in the first week of its launch, the site had over 4,400 visitors, more than 26,000 page views and 750 registered users. For Mygradskills.ca to really take off, though, it needs faculty buy-in and alignment in preparing students for a variety of paths, she said.
“I can’t tell you how many graduate students have told me that they were afraid to tell their faculty advisers that they didn’t want to go on in academia,” Dr. Sekuler said, echoing statements she made in May at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, where she previewed the platform at a panel discussion. At the time, she chided universities, faculty members and graduate supervisors for their failure to speak honestly with students about their career options. Most grad students and postdocs, she said, continue to unrealistically aspire to academic positions despite a poor academic job market.