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Research training for grad students gains support

Professors at Université de Sherbrooke are warming to the idea.


Graduate students’ desire for specialized training in research skills, such as how to publish scientific articles or how to talk to the media, is already well documented. But now, a survey at a university where research training is seen as a priority shows that professors are just as satisfied with workshops in these areas and with the skills their students acquire by taking them.

A survey of 50 professors at Université de Sherbrooke whose students had attended such workshops showed that 90 percent of respondents had seen an improvement in students’ performance in the tasks related to the workshops. The results, which are preliminary, show a clear trend: three-quarters of the professors who responded would recommend this kind of research training to their other students; only one respondent said he would not,  while the others were unsure.

“These are much better results than what we saw when the program started,” said Pedro D’Orléans-Juste, who runs the Centre universitaire d’enrichissement de la formation à la recherche (CUEFR) at U de Sherbrooke, one of the few Canadian centres dedicated specifically to research training for graduate students. The poll was carried out by CUEFR to see whether the workshops were meeting the needs of faculty members.

Initially, he said, “their main concern was that students would spend less time in the lab because of the training workshops.” He himself was unenthusiastic a few years ago when one of his students wanted to take a workshop on how to write scientific articles. “I was absolutely against it because as a professor I had two years of funding and I would rather have her in the lab.”
But, he said, “she managed to develop a modus operandi for writing articles that really made my life much simpler.” Dr. D’Orléans-Juste quickly became an advocate for research training workshops and was named CUEFR’s director when the centre was created in 2009.

U de Sherbrooke had already made research training for science and engineering PhD students a priority. It was the first, if not only, Canadian university to appoint a research chair in doctoral training, a position held by professor Jean Nicolas in the faculty of engineering from 2007 until the chair was replaced by CUEFR. Dr. Nicolas, who has won many teaching awards including the 3M Teaching Fellowship, provided the impetus for creating the centre.

CUEFR offers a variety of research training workshops in areas such as research ethics, financing a research project and communicating with the media. At the moment, the courses are offered only to students in the science, engineering and health sciences faculties. Students can follow a 15-credit program or attend any number of the seven workshops on offer.

Olivier Robin, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, said that he thinks that the courses he took at the centre made life easier for his supervisor. “Our professors give us the scientific knowledge, but CUEFR teaches us about everything else that comes with a PhD,” he said. “The centre’s main asset is that it teaches us to publish more efficiently, because in the world of research, it’s publish or perish.”

The survey of professors showed that more than half of them had noticed that their students asked more questions about their future careers after they had taken a course through CUEFR. Which, according to Dr. D’Orléans-Juste, makes sense: its mission is to train researchers for a world where more and more graduates are hired by private business rather than academia.
In Canadian universities, research training is most often offered to graduate students in the natural sciences, medicine or engineering, as at CUEFR, partly because that is where the demand first arose. However, students from the social sciences, business administration and education are also showing an interest in research training workshops.

Christelle Lison, a recent PhD in education, would have liked to take a workshop or two while she was at U de Sherbrooke. While the centre wasn’t “close-minded about it,” she recalled, “they said that for now it is only for students in engineering, sciences or medicine.”

At McGill University, the SkillSets program, which offers similar training to CUEFR, is open to graduate students from all faculties. Some workshops are specific to the students’ fields of study, such as “Teaching Music to Children” or “Grading in the Sciences”.

According to Dr. D’Orléans-Juste, U de Sherbrooke’s centre could easily adapt its workshops to other fields of research but it would need people and expertise from specific disciplines.
Indeed, Dr. Nicolas has long maintained that it is necessary to tailor research training programs to the discipline. “It takes about a year or a year-and-a-half to set up a new workshop,” said Dr. Nicholas, who is now retired. “You have to talk to the experts and make sure it can fit with the kind of research that is done in a variety of fields.”

Although accepting students from other fields, such as the social sciences, would require the centre to adapt its programs, Dr. Nicolas said that the training offered through CUEFR would only benefit.

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