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PhDs need common skills


There’s growing awareness that newly minted researchers need professional skills that enhance their technical knowledge of their discipline. Demands for professional skills – such as written and oral communication, project management, leadership and teaching – are coming from at least three groups: graduate students, who are concerned about their marketability; the academic research community, with its growing emphasis on interdisciplinary work; and employers outside academe that are hiring more people with PhDs.

But what exactly are the crucial professional skills and what is the best way to make sure doctoral graduates have learned them?

That was the focus of a two-day workshop held in Ottawa in July and organized by the three research granting councils. The event was supported by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies and facilitated by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. About 50 invitees attended, including representatives of the research granting councils, Human Resources and Social Development Canada, deans of graduate studies, centres for teaching and learning, graduate student associations and the Carnegie Foundation.

“The development of non-technical skills by university graduates has become an important issue that needs to be acknowledged, endorsed and promoted by all stakeholders,” said Pierre Bilodeau, director of Scholarships and Fellowships at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Over two days, it became apparent that while there’s a wealth of literature on core competencies, mostly from other countries, there hasn’t been much research in Canada that’s specific to professional skills needed in different disciplines and milieus. Participants heard a range of views on whether graduate students can learn professional skills from separate training modules or whether such skills need to be closely linked to the research program and the person doing it. A few universities presented on their own professional development initiatives for graduate students.

A statement of principles stemming from the workshop will form the basis for discussion at the fall meeting of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies in Moncton.

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