by Brendan Cummins
This post is part of a series of personal reflections by members on graduate student issues in Alberta. It is intended to stimulate discussion and does not necessarily reflect the collective position of ab-GPAC. You can view more in these series here.
I really don’t like the words “professional development.”
For me, and many others, these are two words that conjure images of people sitting around a table learning how to make lesson plans or listening to lectures on how to lecture. It is also the image that many outside of graduate programs have when I talk about the importance of professional development programs to graduate students.
“What do you need professional development for? You got a degree, didn’t you?”
These words echo a sentiment that often comes up when I talk to people about what I’m going to do after grad school. To many outside academia, what we learn through our research or in the classroom provides a strong enough base to succeed post-graduation. The perception of faculty, administration, and those outside academia of what a grad student needs in terms of professional development is often a far cry from reality. In non-academic careers and career paths, there is an understanding that to be better at what you do requires continuous training. Most successful corporations and organization encourage and promote courses and ongoing learning opportunities for their employees. But when professional development is approached in an academic setting it is often focused on the classroom, and outside of graduate programs the inherent value of the training is lost. As I heard one professor say, “My students are too busy for any of that. I wouldn’t let them take anything like that anyway.” The perception of professional development programs being a waste of time are a not-so-well-hidden secret among some faculties and programs. The need to develop skills beyond running a lab, preparing a lecture, or project management gets lost in a discussion of added academic value.
Generally, universities understand the need for developing the skills of graduate students and have created programs to address this need. Across the country, professional development programs attempt to develop skills to help a student in and out of the classroom. But as Rachel Cayley wrote in a 2016 post on University Affairs, “Traditionally, graduate programs have been good at training students to do a certain sort of academic work, but less good at supporting a wider range of ancillary skills.” Most professional development programs focus around how to improve a students’ skills in a way that bridges the academic and non-academic worlds. However, in many cases that bridge is built using academic or business models of training, encouraging the development of the so-called “soft skills” and promoting how “transferable” these skills are. When someone looks at the list of topics offered to graduate students on the University of Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge campuses, they are focused into three areas: teaching, research, and careers. Within this framework a grad student is essentially offered two choices, how to be a better academic and how to find a job if you don’t want to be an academic.
Relevance and Engagement
The problem I see is with the focus. Institutions create programs with the intention of helping grad students develop skills that are transferable from degree to workplace. Soft skills are becoming more important in many programs, but often they are created by the institutions telling the students what they need. These same programs are funded through either special, limited funding from the provincial government or through what extra time and money is available from other campus units. Professional development is tailored by the institutions based on their needs and their ability to fund the programs. With the continued tightening of purse strings in the post-secondary world, programs like THRIVE at the University of Lethbridge are facing challenges related the personnel required to operate and the funding to continue. As institutions look for ways to make up budget shortfalls, professional development falls in to the category of valuable, but non-essential.
As programming suffers, so too does student engagement. While programs look to bridge gaps between academic and non-academic they often miss some of the things that grad students are looking for. In tailoring to a broad spectrum of students, programs miss out on specific wants or academic subsets. “Project Management” or “Networking” courses are titled and designed to appeal to many, but in that broad appeal they end up attracting few. And those they do attract are often the same students who attend every workshop, not the broad cross section hoped for. If professional development was truly a priority, institutions would dig deep with former and current students to discover what is really needed and wanted. Offering development on teaching is valuable to any grad student, but so is a follow up on how that can be applied in the wide world post-grad school.
These types of initiatives require money, time, and commitment by government and institutions to realize the importance of giving grad students more than a classroom education. By giving us the tools to disseminate our research in an accessible manner, by teaching us how to talk about our work to a broader audience, by showing us how to transfer our skills, and by demonstrating that innovation comes in many forms and fashions, professional development programs can add so much to the already high value of a graduate degree. But there needs to be the commitment to giving graduate students what the University of Alberta website calls, “the ability to meet, exceed, and adapt to personal, career, and societal responsibilities within the context of a changing world.”
So, maybe we can stop calling it “professional development.” Maybe we need to find some new words to truly cover what it is we need and want out of these programs. How about “engagement and enhancement.” Or maybe “post-graduate success.” When we find words to describe the depth and breadth of what we want to be when we leave our graduate programs and what we really bring to the table, we can start creating programs to match.
Until then I still really dislike those two words.