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The Black Hole

Professional Development for Graduate Students

BY BETH | SEP 17 2011

An excellent article appeared in University Affairs last week on a couple of programs in Canadian universities that try to address Professional Development for graduate students.

In my current career as an evaluator in health care, professional development is an ongoing part of my job. In the performance planning process used by my employer, I don’t just list the projects I intend to complete (though, of course, that’s an important part of my plan), but also the areas of personal and professional development I intend to work on over the upcoming year and how I intend to work on them. And in my twice annual performance reviews with my boss, progress towards my personal and professional development goals is discussed and it makes up part of my performance appraisal results. Moreover, I’m given plenty of opportunities for professional development: through leadership and technical skills training run by my organization (and, more and more, through the other health authorities in the province), through support to join and participate in my professional organizations ((In my case, the Canadian Evaluation Society and the Canadian Public Health Association)), and through resources for self-directed learning, just to name a few.

When I think back to my graduate school experiences, there wasn’t really much like this, with the notable exception of opportunities for training in the area of teaching through the Centre for Teaching & Academic Growth. And, to be honest, many supervisors actively discouraged their graduate students from taking workshops on teaching, because it amounted to time you weren’t in your lab doing what was important and rewarded in academics ((Although mine didn’t discourage it. I felt teaching was a very important part of my career – I was a TA and an instructor throughout my PhD training – so it made a lot of sense for me to take advantage of those opportunities.)).  And I certainly never had anything like a performance plan or a performance appraisal as a graduate student. You’d get feedback from your supervisor on, say, some data you’d produced or a paper you’d written, but nothing formal and nothing focusing on your professional development per se. ((I realize that this is just from my own experience and that of other graduate students that I know, but I’m sure there are exceptions and graduate school experience varies widely. Nor am I intending to criticize my supervisor or those of other graduate students I know. I’m more making the observation that doing performance planning and appraisal, and encouraging professional development outside of the academic training in your specific lab, is not an expected role of academic supervisors, rather than saying that supervisors aren’t doing their jobs.)).
Fortunately, that seems to be changing. A few professional development training programs for graduate students were cited in the UA article:

  • McGill University’s Skill Sets Program includes such areas as communication & interpersonal skills, research management & leadership, career development, creative & critical thinking, life skills, and societal & civic responsibility.
  • UBC’s Graduate Pathways to Success program includes training in such areas as success in graduate school (e.g., academic writing, grant writing), self-management, professional effectiveness, career building, constructive leadership.

In particular, I like that these programs include training in both academic-focused areas, such as applying for grants and writing academic papers, and in transferrable skills, such as leadership, stress management, and ethics, which would be useful whether an individual follows an academic or a non-academic career path.

Being that I’ve been out of graduate school for a few years, I’m a bit out of the loop on these things. Does anyone have any experience with these programs, or similar ones at their own university? If so, what do you think of them? And does anyone get performance appraisals from their graduate supervisors? Do you think it would be useful?

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