Mentorship Matters: The Case for Graduate Professional Development

Today, the majority of PhD graduates will not become university professors. Two reasons for this are glaringly simple: professors are not retiring at 65 and universities are not hiring as they once did. A third is that there are an increasing number of opportunities for employment outside academe. Despite this reality, graduate supervision remains based on a narrow and outmoded apprenticeship model where professors train graduate students to replace themselves. And while graduate students are increasingly looking for jobs outside of academia in response to the daunting academic job market, many find themselves poorly prepared to make the transition from university to the workplace. With little if any guidance on how to leverage their marketable and transferable skills, no professional network outside of their scholarly field, and few immediate career resources apparent to them, many graduates find themselves in a difficult situation. Some graduate students decide to extend their studies because they believe that their tenure track position is just one more publication, teaching gig, or post-doc away. In the sciences, for example, most PhD students go on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship, firm in the belief that following the well-trodden path of their supervisor will guarantee them a job as a professor. Still other students believe that they have no other career options, leading to long completion times and high dropout rates. Trained expressly to become tenured faculty, many of today’s graduates feel ill prepared to do anything else.

The reality, however, is that most graduates find their unique paths to successful careers outside the professoriate, as highlighted in a recent report by the Conference Board of Canada “Inside and Outside the Academy: Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers”. PhDs find employment in diverse areas of higher education and beyond, including government, hospitals, the charitable sector and sparingly, in industry. They also enjoy employment rates and salaries above the national average. Unfortunately, professors, university administrators, and most significantly, graduate students, are often unaware of these career paths or are reluctant to consider them. The situation is particularly acute for Canadian graduate students, which bears considerable consequences for the national workforce and economy. Canada already lags far behind other OECD countries at only one per cent of PhD graduates entering the workforce, which potentially affects our national productivity and innovation. PhDs are the deep-thinkers, problem-solvers, innovators, communicators, and leaders that Canada needs now more than ever to grow and transform our economy.

But how do universities help their graduate students effectively consider and transition into the professional world outside the academy?

That’s where career mentoring and graduate professional development comes in – to fully prepare Masters and PhD graduates with a broad skill set and strong network so that they are able to take advantage of the many opportunities available to them in today’s global job market.

We highlight six points of action that universities and their faculty can take to transform graduate education for their students:

1. Being Open to Career Options

Professors must be more than supervisors to their students. They need to be mentors and to be closely involved in the career development of their students and be open to choices beyond the academic track. Students however often have a difficult time openly discussing career choices with their supervisors because those who voice a desire to leave the academy are frequently met with ignorance, discouragement, or bewilderment that leads to a sense of frustration or disillusionment. But, the job market that today’s students face is not the same one that today’s faculty members entered. Yet this is precisely why faculty members should include discussions of professional development as part of the regular committee meetings to make sure a student’s career considerations are transparent and supported, sometimes in addition to, not solely contingent upon, the student’s research. Resources such as an Individual Development Plan can also help students set career goals and develop plans to achieve them. If a supervisor feels his or her student is working towards a career path that the professor is unfamiliar with, then the professor should bear some responsibility for helping to connect him or her with someone who is familiar, such as an alumnus or expert at a university career centre. Engaging professors with the career development of their graduate students will go a long to improving the graduate experience.

2. Engaging Graduate Alumni

Universities and their graduate units should track their Masters and PhD graduates to find out where they go after graduating, and follow them as they develop their career paths. This outcome data is essential for assessing graduate programs and preparing students for the world of work. Tracking graduates in the professional world will provide the necessary information that incoming and current students need to make the right decisions about their own career paths. Moreover, students will be incentivized to continue their education in graduate school if there is a clear demonstration of the value of a graduate degree. The proof of this value is demonstrated to potential students by successful graduate alumni. Masters and PhD graduates who have launched successful careers can show students the advantage of having an advanced degree. By demonstrating what you can accomplish with a PhD, universities will be in a position to attract students and increase their applicant pool. And the profiles of successful graduates who tell their unique stories of their paths to success are a powerful recruitment tool. Ultimately, graduate alumni provide a valuable resource as mentors and as participants in networking and graduate professional development activities.

3. Cultivating Networking Skills

Most graduate students have very poor networking skills. And yet, a professional network is one of the most important resources that someone embarking on a career needs to develop. A graduate student’s network should extend beyond their supervisor, supervisory committee and professors. Asking themselves the question, “who knows about you, your skills, and your work?” graduate students should recognize the importance of participating in activities outside of the lab or library. Extra-curricular activities provide great opportunities to participate more fully in student life, develop valuable contacts, and accrue experience in networking. These activities also provide an opportunity to develop leadership skills. Joining a professional society and getting involved in their activities is one way to build a strong network for students. No matter how they go about it, however, graduate students need to be mentored and learn the skills for becoming mentors, themselves. Supervisors can and should be mentors, but are more likely to be seen as role models to be emulated. Alumni are uniquely suited to fill the mentor role, as they were once in a similar position to today’s graduates. How do departments and universities build effective professional networks? A good place to start would be with something as simple as encouraging their students to make cold calls to an alumnus, followed up by an informational interview and establishing an ongoing connection via email, LinkedIn, and similar channels. Providing this kind of encouragement is one simple and cost-effective way that universities and graduate units can help graduate students build robust professional networks.

4. Teaching Leadership and “Soft-Skills”

Cutting edge research and scholarship has always been at the heart of graduate education, especially at the PhD level, where the creation of new knowledge is paramount. The key to success as a graduate student remains self-motivation, a strong work ethic, and a dedication to generating significant new knowledge that is based on independent research using the latest methods. Of course, success for graduate students likewise includes achieving an in-depth understanding of their field; developing excellent technical and critical analysis skills; and in communicating their findings effectively at conferences and in top peer-reviewed journals. But it also critically entails developing “soft skills”, building a strong network, and becoming a leader.

Leadership skills are a crucial key to success both inside and outside academia, and faculty and universities have a responsibility to help students prepare for their futures by developing these skills. PhD graduates are not hired as professors based on their technical skills – they are hired based on their track record of achievements and their potential as leaders in their respective fields as demonstrated in a well-articulated and supported research plan. Their development as leaders needs to begin while they are in school. Early on, students should hone the ability to inspire others to higher levels of performance – and to not be afraid of achieving transformative change by demonstrating their own leadership. Instead of discouraging such activities as being a “distraction” from research, universities and graduate units can cultivate strong leadership skills as an integral part of a student’s career development by re-framing extra-curricular and professional activities as an essential component of a graduate student’s education.

Most research in Canada is done by hard-working graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Indeed, a steady stream of graduate students is required to keep the cycle of research turning at universities. Supervisors need students to do the work necessary to publish and get grants in order to continue to do research, especially in the sciences. But graduate students are not employee-labourers. Under the current apprentice model, they are students being trained in the arts of research, problem-solving, critical thinking, and scholarly communication. Yet while research imparts many valuable skills, and in some cases, such as in the physical or life sciences, it imparts high-level technical expertise, graduates need to continue to develop these technical skills and knowledge bases in their field through lifelong learning. They also need to develop their soft or transferable skills. For example, graduate students should be able to work as an effective member of a team, to collaborate across disciplines, and to initiate collaborations. By providing the necessary resources, universities can help students fully develop their professional skills as an integral part of their graduate training.

5. Communicating Research to Diverse Audiences

Graduate students are adept communicators of the results of their research to their peers, at conferences and in publications. They often encounter considerable difficulty, however, in explaining the passion they have for research and its importance to a non-expert, often even to members of their own families. With abundant expertise in these areas, graduate programs can teach their students how to write a lay summary, do a one-minute elevator talk, or a three-minute pitch to an interested party such as a journalist or a potential investor. Résumé and cover letter writing helps especially in targeting desired positions and audiences. Students also need to be able to convert their academic curriculum vitae into a one-page résumé with a compelling cover letter targeted to a desired position. Furthermore, students can learn the language and skills to do this while still in graduate school if universities provide and promote the resources necessary for acquiring these skills.

6. Encouraging Experiential Learning

Many graduate students spend most of their time on campus or working from home, often in isolation. This, however hardly exposes them to an array of new opportunities and environments that might benefit their alternative careers paths. Mobility and experiential learning should therefore be encouraged. Graduate students need to spend time off-campus having diverse experiences – for example, in an Oxford lab learning a new technique, a Paris library poring over original manuscripts, the SSHRC office in Ottawa assessing original research, a biotech company in Vancouver, an investment firm in Toronto, or with a think tank in Halifax. Instead of a post-doc, a co-op or internship in government, industry or the charitable sector, may be much more valuable. Increased mobility and paid internships should be a part of every graduate student’s education, and funding should be made available through collaborations and organizations like Mitacs to meet this demand. The professional world that our graduates are entering is vast and, to navigate it, faculty and universities should encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities to expand their network and experience. Many universities are developing mechanisms and new funding streams to make this happen.

The time has come to transform graduate education and enhance the student experience. Graduate professional development must be an integral part of graduate student’s training, and moreover, all graduate students should be cultivating a more complete skill set, especially in terms of their communication, leadership, and networking skills. The time has also come to re-imagine the PhD. Here, it is useful to distinguish between research and education: research is a careful study and investigation to discover new facts and information, while education is the systematic training and instruction designed to impart knowledge and develop skills. Universities that skillfully blend the features of research and education that integrate graduate professional development will be leaders in setting a new standard for graduate studies – one that prioritizes the success of graduate students over myopic ranking systems, one that forges innovative partnerships between academic and professional sectors, and one that productively contributes to the economic and social wellbeing of Canada.

Reinhart Reithmeier is a Professor jn Biochemistry at the University of Toronto, and is Special Advisor to the Dean of SGS for Graduate Professional Development and Engagement. Christopher Kelleher is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Toronto.

This report is condensed and adapted from a Report on Graduate Professional Development submitted to the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto by Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier.

Photo by John Walker under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.