Professional Skills For PhD Students

By Monica Munaretto

Within the discourse about a “PhD crisis,” the one area receiving the most attention lately is the employability of doctoral graduates and their perceived lack of professional skills beyond research training. Increases in graduate student professional development opportunities in the form of on-campus skills development programming and a variety of internship opportunities are some responses emerging across the country. One major Canadian university is exploring new integrative approaches to the doctorate and dissertation process to include professional skills development.  Each of these initiatives provides opportunities and challenges for universities, faculty, and students.

The Demand for Professional Skills

In Canada, a number of recent reports have explored doctoral student enrolment trends, career prospects and employment outcomes (see this and this). Concerns about PhD employability have been the focus of literature, and of action, in other jurisdictions like Australia and Europe for quite some time.

The fact that the skills debate has become so important recently is in part a reflection of Canada’s investment in graduate education at the turn of the millennium. In Ontario, for example, concerns about a projected PhD shortage resulted in increased provincial funding towards graduate education in 2005 and 2011. As a result, the number of doctoral students in Ontario nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015. The expectation that increased enrolments would coincide with faculty retirements did not in fact occur as expected. The lower number of permanent employment opportunities in higher education, most notably in the professoriate, has resulted in the reality that most Canadian PhD graduates will work outside of academe.

A number of studies have attempted to identify the specific skills Canadian doctoral students should develop for diverse career pathways. Most studies conducted both in Canada and abroad present similar lists of skills and a 2013 HEQCO report caputures them best: communication and collaboration; leadership and management; creativity and entrepreneurship; teaching and knowledge translation; and ethics and responsible conduct of research. While some of these may be inherent in the doctoral process, arguably varying by discipline, many students will benefit from intentional training in these areas.

University Initiatives

Two Canadian Association for Graduate Studies reports (2012 and 2017) describe how universities have responded to the graduate skills issue. Overall, there has been an increase in the number of institutions working towards the development of a centralized professional development program for graduate students. Canadian universities are aware that doctoral students face challenges transitioning to the non-academic workplace and the provision of graduate student professional development is a major focus of their graduate studies units.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of proposed solutions have been very skills focused, optional and adjunct add-ons to an unchanged academic program. Many programs are under revision, problems in communication across individual campuses results in overlap, and there is very little in the way of assessment of the efficacy of the offerings. Very little data exists on the success of these programs beyond what amounts to participant numbers and reviews.

Assessment of professional skills acquisition in particular is a difficult task, especially when looking at PhD professional skill development, since there is a gap between the training and the application of the skills and any evaluation would rely quite heavily on self-assessment. One notable attempt was made by McGill University in their Survey of PhD Outcomes (2015), where some of their graduate student professional development programs were assessed by students two years and five years after graduation.

More broadly, there are calls to reimagine the PhD and overhaul our approach to doctoral education entirely. The University of British Columba has established a pilot project called the Public Scholar Initiative, designed to support PhD students in linking their research to an area of public benefit and encourage the integration of career relevant forms of scholarship into their doctoral education. The report on their first two pilot years indicates that although some participants report experiencing challenges in getting everyone “on board” with the new approach, the majority of students have had very positive experiences in the program.

Doctoral Student Internships

Another response to the call for graduate student professional skills beyond research is the development and cultivation of internships. Graduate internships aim to strengthen relationships between universities and non-academic organizations, providing opportunities for PhD students to network in industry and other non-university settings.  Through internships, participants can apply employment related skills to workplace settings, and observe first-hand how their academic expertise can translate to the Canadian industry and not for profit sectors. Examples of faculty driven PhD internship opportunities include the Graduate Industrial Internship Program through the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo’s Computer Science-Internship Program, and the University of British Columbia’s Biodiversity Research Centre internship program.

The largest graduate student internship program in Canada is Mitacs-Accelerate, which creates opportunities for graduate students to partner with industry to complete major research projects, while still under the supervision of university faculty. In addition to their flagship program, Mitacs also offers three additional programs: Mitacs Training, composed of skills training online and on university campuses; Mitacs Elevate, which provides internships for post-doctoral fellows; and Mitacs Globalink, comprised of a number of programs focused on providing international research experiences for domestic and international students.  While Mitacs started its programming with a limited scope focused on the STEM fields, it expanded to include all disciplines in 2007.

Conclusion

There is clearly no “one size fits all” solution to doctoral skills development. One of the criticisms of the doctoral skills-programming approach is that it relies too heavily on several assumptions about the labour market. Universities presume the professional skills they are teaching will be transferable, presume they will be desirable to employers and presume that employers know what they are looking for and how doctoral students can contribute to their workplace. The internship model has the potential to solve this issue by engaging potential employers in the professional development of our doctoral students. New approaches to the PhD being considered in Canada, and in the case of UBC being piloted, are showing promise. Where these opportunities are not available, add-on skills programming remains the dominant approach.

With increasing attention paid to grad student employment outcomes by large national organizations like the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and Mitacs, and the establishment of a professional association focused on this issue, the Consortium of Canadian Graduate Student Development Administrators, we will continue to see new developments in this area.  We are moving towards a national strategy on graduate student professional development, and there is no doubt that much of this will be discussed at the upcoming CAGS conference in Winnipeg and the Graduate Career Consortium Regional Meeting in Toronto, both to be held in November, 2018.

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