Unpacking Professional Development for Graduate Students

The work that I do on this blog is generally designed to support my work in the classroom, which involves teaching academic writing and speaking to graduate students. When graduate students attend these sorts of workshops or courses, this undertaking is often characterized as professional development. In order to understand that characterization, it’s essential to think about what is meant by the term ‘professional development’. Most of us first became familiar with the term as something designed for already-working people. That is, professional development was necessary precisely because the original training or education was complete. After a number of years in a job, we benefit from professional development because it can offer us innovative ways of approaching what we do, thus making us more confident, competent, or engaged. When we start thinking of professional development for graduate students—that is, for people who are currently in school learning how to do something—we have to confront an obvious question: Why do we need ‘professional development’ for people who are still in school? Isn’t that what the school is for? If we are to offer professional development for graduate students, we clearly have to be reflective about the process.

Whether or not professional development initiatives act as an implicit rebuke of existing graduate education, the growth of such initiatives highlights what generally isn’t happening within graduate programs. 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. Before looking at these ancillary professional skills in more detail, I’d like to make a distinction between professional development and professionalization. My anecdotal sense from my own university is that professional development tends to be offered centrally while professionalization initiatives are coming out of departments themselves. While the two things are similar, they are also significantly different. Professionalization is something that happens to the field of study whereas professional development is something undertaken by the individual. That is, professionalization reflects an awareness that graduate departments themselves have an obligation to offer initiatives—that are often part of a degree program and possibly even compulsory—to support students’ eventual ability to thrive professionally. In contrast, professional development has an individual dynamic: the student can decide to develop their professional skills on their own time and away from the department. While I think the structural integration of professionalization is valuable for a range of reasons, I’m going to focus in this post on the training offered centrally under the auspices of professional development. In what follows, I am going to divide these skills in three categories: integral; professional academic; and professional non-academic.

Integral skills are those that allow us to communicate our research effectively. The ability to explain research to a wide range of audiences in a wide range of formats must be seen as integral to the educational goals of a graduate student: research that can’t be conveyed to others in an appropriate fashion is inherently lacking. These integral skills—writing effectively, understanding how to make presentations, being able to communicate research to different audiences—will indubitably help students in their professional lives, but they are different from other forms of professional development because of their inherent connection to being a successful student. You can’t thrive as a graduate student without developing these skills, which makes them different from the skills necessary for moving from being a student to being a professional.

Professional academic skills are those that prepare students first for the academic job market and then for an academic job. The key element here is, of course, teaching; as so many have observed, a PhD is often expected to prepare us for teaching despite the fact that the actual teacher training component of doctoral education can be pretty hit and miss. Supporting graduate students as nascent teachers rather than just fostering their research skills is a crucial way to prepare them for academic jobs. Similarly, talking about how to apply for funding and how to prepare for scholarly publishing can help with the transition from student to professor. However, given the current state of the job market, preparing for the job of being an academic isn’t sufficient; graduate students also need to be prepared for the travails of an increasingly fraught job search process.

Lastly, professional non-academic skills are those that bridge the gap between graduate training and the jobs that many graduate students are going to find—by choice or by necessity—outside of the traditional professorial role. We know that doctoral training is often extremely transferable, but we need to clarify those pathways and facilitate the translation that allows graduate students to frame their existing skills as valuable for a wider range of professional opportunities.

These three species of professional development obviously involve a great deal of overlap. Some of the skills will operate in all three areas because they are fundamental skills. Some of the skills will be readily transferable: a good understanding of oral presentation skills, for instance, will allow us to make many different sorts of effective presentations. And some of these skills themselves will assist students in understanding the very nature of transferable skills. As an example, when I teach students about writing for different audiences, they are learning two things: at a basic level, they are learning to adjust their writing to suit its potential audience; at a higher level, they are also potentially learning to be more reflective about the nature of the skills that they are developing in graduate school.

Accompanying all these species of professional development, of course, is the need to provide holistic support for graduate students. Supporting graduate students means acknowledging both that they have issues—financial, familial, medical, emotional—affecting their graduate experience and that the task of building the necessary research and ancillary skills is inherently difficult. We need to give graduate students access to the skills they may lack while also acknowledging the complex stress of graduate study. While it doesn’t replace providing concrete emotional support for graduate students, providing these three types of ancillary skills can have the effect of normalizing their challenges. Graduate students, who so often struggle in their dual role as advanced student and novice scholar, can be reassured by the very existence of this sort of professional development. I’m often surprised by the fact that a frank discussion of the intellectual and emotional challenges of graduate writing is met by relief from many graduate students. Despite the prevalence of that narrative, many graduate students have often internalized a different and more damaging narrative about their own deficiency vis-à-vis the expected work of a graduate student. These psychological costs have tangible implications for the students themselves and also play an important role in rates of attrition and lengthy time-to-completion.

As we think about these three species of professional development and the complex demands of graduate study, we also need to think about the diverse needs of different graduate student constituencies. We can divide graduate students by discipline; this division can be a broad one between the sciences and the humanities or something finer that recognizes the unique professional demands of different graduate programs. We can divide graduate students by linguistic background; some students are learning to write suitable academic prose in their first language while others are accomplishing the same task in a subsequent language. We can divide students by degree; the needs of doctoral students are often different from those of Master’s students, especially from those in terminal Master’s degrees. In order to tackle needs spread along so many different spectrums, it is very helpful to have a deeper understanding of the types of things we are trying to impart. Clarifying our understanding of what professional development might mean for graduate students can help us to design suitable offerings and explain those offerings in terms that make sense to the many constituencies involved. In the end, offering these professional skills is one way of ensuring that all graduate students—each of whom represents a unique spot among many overlapping measures of identity—can have the chance to thrive in graduate school and beyond.

I would like to thank Dr. Jane Freeman for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.

6 responses to “Unpacking Professional Development for Graduate Students

  1. Thanks, Rachel. This was a useful unpacking of professional development as a re-frame of doctoral education.

    Here at Macquarie University, we recently brainstormed a new name for our group, which runs training centrally for higher degree research candidates and supervisors in those three species of PD: integral, professional academic and professional non-academic skills. We finally settled on “HDR Support and Development”, which I’m glad to see syncs with the terminology and descriptions in your post 🙂

  2. Thank you for this well written and useful post. It gives me something to think about over Easter whilst I’m finalising the paperwork (including employability and prof dev initiatives) for a new course validation.

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  4. Hello Rachel,
    I refer graduate students to your blog frequently in my role as a facilitator of Thesis Completion Support groups. I was delighted to stumble across this post today as I have been saying for years that viewing one’s graduate education as a form of professional development will help graduate students navigate more effectively and have a healthier attitude toward seeking the support and tools they need to complete their project. (I’ve done this work out of my Counselling Services role, where my clinical training and career development background combine with a fascination with identity, and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on higher education – please note, that was by way of establishing my context, rather than my credentials!)
    In supporting graduate students for the last six or so years, I have always encouraged graduate students to think of their relationship to their learning as a form of professional development. Part of the reason I began to use the language of professional development is precisely because I see so many experienced, intelligent graduate students somehow lose touch with all that life and professional learning they have actually brought with them into their graduate work.
    A case in point: recently I helped co-facilitate a Thesis Boot Camp and offered 30 minute conversations with interested students throughout the afternoons. One woman (probably mid-late 30’s) had spent more than a year writing three separate proposals for her supervisor, who consistently gave ‘vague’ feedback. She interpreted his lack of concrete feedback or constructive input as, “this is crap, start over”. She was at the point of withdrawing when we spoke. She is working part-time as a helping professional in a community setting, so I asked her “if you had a problem with the quality of the feedback your work supervisor was giving you, how would you handle it?” I watched something change in her gaze as she realized she knew exactly how she would ask for what she needed to improve her work…she went off and secured a same day meeting with a man she had not seen in months, came back the next day glowing and reported how she had been polite but assertive, had not given up when he was again vague, and had successfully obtained concrete input, approval to move ahead, and a tentative timeline.
    I think I would say that the work I do falls at times into all three types of professional development you name, but it is part of the holistic support that I enjoy the most.

    I think what I value most in this post is the effort toward analysis and understanding of the different types of professional development and their essential contributions to graduate student success (and completion!). This is an important conversation I hope deans and chairs of graduate schools, directors of learning and teaching centres, and providers of graduate support services can engage in together in an ongoing way.

    One of the greatest impediments to creating positive, holistic supports, appropriate resources and professional development for graduate students remains, in my opinion, the fragmentation of disciplines and auxiliary or support services.

    • Thanks so much, Janet. I think you make an important point about professional development, that it is not just about the ideas and strategies we share but also about helping the student to access their own existing professional competencies. I will definitely think about that insight in my own work with thesis writers–thank you!

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