Graduate Transformative Skills Project Series: Graduate Student and Postdoc Perspective

In 2019-20, the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning (GMCTL) funded a faculty fellow, Dr. Loleen Berdahl, to study the needs for graduate student professional skill development at USask and recommend next steps. This blogpost series examines and translates the data from differing perspectives.  We invite you review the data here. This work continues through the Graduate Competencies project, led by Wendy James and Chelsea Smith. 

Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Researcher Perspectives 

Holly is a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Medicine, who loves dogs.  

Edgar is a PhD candidate in Engineering, who also loves dogs 

What stands out to you about the Transformative Skills Project data? 

Holly: Focusing the skills and competencies around what is needed by anyone from any discipline means meeting people where they are at through different media, and the importance of online resources to increasing accessibility for these students. It is problematic to use non-attendance fees. Although these may be effective, I think this will create an unnecessary barrier to students dealing with structural violence, mental health concerns, and caregiving responsibilities. 

Edgar: How to get people in – it’s a challenge to encourage people to develop outside their research, although one responder noted, “I have learned more from the things I did to develop beyond my research project, than I learned from my research project itself.” Training received in the skill certificate is relevant and valuable since they align with what the industry is looking for or expecting from any professional. They are not simply theoretical classes about ethics and professionalism, but practical lessons with real examples that allow you to reflect on your own skills and strengths. As a result, one becomes more valuable in the job market. You do not only obtain a certificate, but you learn how to better sell your capabilities. As Holly notes, “I don’t think I’ve had an RA position wherein these skills weren’t important”. Adaptability will be the most valuable skill in the present/future. 

I also think timing for advertising and engagement matters. USask should advertise opportunities somewhere around the time thesis students present their project proposal. Before this, students are too new and taking courses, so they might be experiencing lots of anxiety and they will not want more on their plates. After the proposal, they will only focus on their project. Because of this, having on-demand material is important. Students can go back to check content if they need it, and provide access to alumni if possible. The impact could be assessed by going back to alumni of the certificates to inquire about whether their learnings helped them in their current careers.   

What questions remain?

Holly: How do we show the value of the core competencies within and outside of research to students, so it isn’t just one more competing concern students need to manage on the way to a degree? 

Edgar: How do we ensure the skills international students are arriving with can be translated Into the Canadian context, so that what has already been built isn’t lost or not recognized? Further, how can the institution learn and grow from students’ skills? 

We noted from report, “Interviewees spoke of the challenges of knowing the effectiveness of graduate professional skills training. Stated one, “Sometimes our impact is delayed; sometimes our impact is not in person. So how do we measure impact? That’s a really tricky question. I think we try to make it easy for ourselves simply by saying how many people came and I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it.” Deliberate attention must be paid to defining what constitutes success and evaluation should be central to program planning.”  

Evaluation with students and recent graduates is important, especially those individuals who are not currently accessing professional skills development training. How do we address the needs that the current training is not meeting? 

Moving forward: Where might this work go next, in service to graduate students? 

Edgar: USask could consider workshop and program sections exclusively for international graduate students.  

Holly: I wonder about the potential of doing this for other communities who are currently marginalized within academy? Or ensuring some of these workshops are led by these professionals/professors? 

Edgar: A deep orientation focused on how to be successful in grad studies, led by peer facilitators leading up to the start of classes, similar to ‘Programming or coding camps.’ 

What next steps are important to you?

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