Universities need to do more to help doctoral students acquire skills for a variety of careers (opinion)

It was 2011, and I had become sure that I did not want a tenure-track job. I started my doctorate. in the throes of the 2008 recession, and the tanking job market meant there were few positions in my tiny subdomain. But the shortage of university jobs was not the main reason I no longer looked for a professorship. Too many aspects of teaching just didn’t suit me: the politics of the department made me uncomfortable, I didn’t like teaching (and hated grades), and I couldn’t imagine going through the extremely strenuous and heavy (interview on a hotel bed?) Academic application and interview process.

This recognition, which grew stronger as I approached my defense date, was a problem. After all, I had been training to be a teacher since I started my Masters, and I didn’t know how to apply that training to another field. I needed to find a job, but I didn’t know what employers would be willing to pay me for or what skills they were looking for. I needed help getting from where I was (panic and despair) to where I needed to be: post-doctorate. job that pays the bills and ideally would allow me to do meaningful and impactful work.

I looked for help in my department to no avail. My graduate program was focused solely on academic careers. People who quit before they finished and started working outside the academy, and people who finished but took non-academic jobs anyway, never heard of it again. Granted, professors and administrators didn’t know where they were going and what they were doing – or at least they didn’t share that information with students. And everyone knew that the career center only served undergraduates.

Not finding what I needed where I was, I sought support and information outside of my university. I have found forums, books, and online communities for doctoral students interested in pursuing non-academic careers, including VersatilePhD, # alt-ac Twitter, “leave on” and So what are you going to do with this? I went from feeling like I was the only one in my situation to being grateful that I had a substantial and generous community, which understood my difficulties and could help me get to where I wanted to go. I have set my sights on a career in research administration and have planned to launch my job search in earnest as soon as I have a defense date.

I was fine. But what about all the other graduate students and post-docs who were unwilling or unable to get tenure-track jobs? What was my institution doing to support them? Was it really nothing or was I just not able to find it?

It turns out it was a bit of both. I discovered this when my doctoral school hired me, based on the work I had done to train myself as a future doctoral student. job seeker, to research what is happening in the world of professional and career development for graduates. Trustees tasked me with writing a white paper that would usher in what they hoped would become a new centralized postgraduate and graduate professional skills program aimed at providing the kind of support I couldn’t find.

My job was to talk to everyone on campus who provided professional or career development support to graduate students or post-docs to understand:

  • what support really existed;
  • what gaps in support, accessibility or comprehensiveness we might identify;
  • what students and fellows wanted;
  • opportunities for harmonization, centralization and better communication;
  • how we ranked against other universities in Canada and around the world; and
  • what we would need to do to reach a level we would be happy with.

And I found that my university was doing a lot to support people like me, even before having a formal, centralized program. I was not aware of my institution’s efforts in part because I had not looked closely enough. Like many North American universities, my institution has offered workshops, seminars, events and experiences aimed at providing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with core research, teaching and professional skills to support their successful transition. towards a variety of careers. Everything was on offer, from a dedicated graduate guidance counselor to workshops on social media, project management, plain language communication and many other career-focused skills.

But most of these opportunities were hard to find and not evenly distributed and accessible across the institution, as they were scattered across different academic and administrative units. The events were poorly promoted and offered to a body of graduate students who were often not on campus (we were all locked at home reading our summaries or writing our research), hard to reach and scared of ‘admit to ourselves, to our peers and to our professors who interested us, or at least interested us, something other than the professorship.

The White Paper mission evolved into a full time position, as I was tasked with launching a centralized, visible and comprehensive program of graduate and postdoctoral professional skills that benefited all graduate and postdoctoral students at my university. . This work led to a career: I now run a similar program for 1,200 STEM graduate and postdoctoral students at a research institute affiliated with a teaching hospital, and I also consult with graduate professors and administrators interested in creating their own programs. .

The end of the learning model

Universities need to do a better job of helping doctoral students find that first non-university job and providing them with the tools and skills they need to transition into a range of meaningful and well-paying careers. In a report on GPPS programs in Canada, Marilyn Rose notes that universities should prepare graduate students in a way that “ensures the mobilization of their knowledge and skills and the fulfillment of their potential in various workplaces”. She calls Ph.D. career preparation an “ethical imperative”.

Training doctoral students for diversified careers is also pragmatic. Professional and career development programs are exceptional recruitment and retention tools – universities will attract talented students. And once these students graduate, they will move into a range of professional spheres, confident that their doctorate. training enables them to be intellectual leaders, coveted employees and valued ambassadors of their institutions and disciplines.

However, maintaining the current graduate population is only ethical if universities inform potential students of their programs’ academic placement rates and encourage incoming students to keep their options open throughout the doctorate. And the change must be more than informative: graduate programs must offer meaningful and accessible opportunities to develop skills that will serve doctoral students in a range of careers.

Higher education has been largely a training period in which graduate students learn the profession of teacher. Yet studies show that students are not adequately trained even for the skills required by faculty. A 2001 study by Jody D. Nyquist and Bettina J. Woodford revealed widespread dissatisfaction among faculty and administrators responsible for hiring doctors as new faculty members.

Despite the wishes of hiring committees and employers, the core graduate program and activities still teach graduate students how to become subject matter experts and qualified researchers, and not much else. Graduate studies don’t teach them how to budget their grants (or fund their business), supervise their lab staff (or become a hiring manager) or manage an undergraduate department (or coordinate business operations). ). The struggles of new professors to fit into their new roles significantly deplete their research productivity and general well-being. Students need more training in teaching, supervisory, and communication skills, all of which are essential for success as a teacher or principal investigator. Yet many, if not most, of these skills are not unique to faculty.

Graduate students should do more than just take comprehensive exams and write their theses. They need to develop professional skills that will help them in or outside the academic job market. Professional skills are essential for any post-doctorate. pathway, including tenure-track: a study of more than 1,600 university vacancies in English and modern languages ​​showed that over 75% of the skills listed are generally associated with non-professional careers.

A useful way to think about the doctorate of the 21st century. is a fixed contract job that pays graduate students to read, write and research and provides the opportunity to acquire a range of transferable skills that can be used in a faculty or non-academic work. The opportunities offered by GPPS programs help graduate students make the most of their time in graduate studies and prepare for success in the career they choose after graduation. They will never again have access to such a wide range of free and personalized professional development opportunities.

More graduate schools should strive to establish or strengthen their GPPS program. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel; two professional groups are dedicated to these questions: the Graduate Career Consortium in the United States and the Consortium of Canadian Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators in Canada. Besides, The Doctorate Reinvented: Navigating 21st Century Humanities Education, from which this essay is taken, brings together the latest research and best practices from these programs.

As I discovered myself, when you start researching GPPS, you will find that it is a large and growing world of activity and research. If you pursue it on behalf of your own graduate students, you will be able to help them design a personalized professional and career development program that meets their needs while supporting your institution’s mission and goals.

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