Tag Archives: Job market

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.

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Links: Attrition and Writing Support, Effective Job Talks, Understanding Journal Boycotts

Here is a recent piece from The University of Venus blog on graduate students and attrition. The author, Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, begins by allowing that some attrition is probably beneficial: some people will inevitably decide that graduate study isn’t right for them. But she argues that even those who are in the right place would benefit from additional support from sources outside their departments. She divides that support into two types of ‘services’: psychological support and research and writing advice. This notion of additional support is great, and Segesten provides a helpful list of suggestions for managing the writing process. But I think it is worth noting the implications of treating writing as a problem in need of a solution. In this framework, writing is treated as a problem—akin to other life or organizational problems—to be solved rather than as an activity at the heart of the academic enterprise. Treating writing difficulties as mere matters of organization (or approach or determination) can lead students to feel that their difficulties ought to be more manageable than they are. When writing is treated more as a life skill than an academic skill, a student can be left in a difficult position: their weakness is characterized as minor but their experience of that weakness can be extremely unpleasant. Being a weak writer is rarely a ‘minor’ problem for a graduate student, and the solution to such difficulties are rarely simple.

This post from The Professor Is In blog discusses delivering effective job talks. Kelsky’s post is full of great advice, all of which would be helpful to anyone preparing for an important talk. In particular, I wanted to highlight her discussion of the text necessary to support an effective talk. Her advice is ‘read but don’t read’, and most people can only achieve that apparent paradox with a well-designed written text. Nothing gives polish to a formal talk better than a prepared text: most speakers cannot achieve the necessary level of articulacy off the cuff (especially in a high-stakes situation when nerves are more likely to be an issue). At the same time, nothing weakens a talk more than seeing nothing but the top of the presenter’s head as a paper is read word-for-word from the page. As hard as it sounds, we all need to find a perfect blend of textual support (to avoid inarticulacy) and rehearsed confident delivery (that doesn’t appear to rely on a written text). Here is an earlier post that suggests some ways to create a text that will support a sophisticated and fluent talk without the appearance of reading.

We all know that we can’t read everything and that we can’t follow every story that comes along. When a story is new, we all make decisions about whether a story warrants immediate engagement or not. Sometimes, inevitably, we guess wrong and end up feeling as if we’ll never grasp all the nuances of a particular story. I thought (or maybe just hoped) that the boycott of Elsevier was one of those stories that I could ignore. Then, of course, it wasn’t! So I was very happy to find this helpful post from Barbara Fister writing at Inside Higher Ed. She starts at the beginning, documents the important steps along the way, and draws valuable conclusions. The comments on her post are also surprisingly constructive and interesting.

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Links: Argument as Action, Writing Assignments, Break Writing

I have no idea why an incomplete draft version of this post was sent to those of you who are subscribers. I can’t decide whether I hope it was WordPress’s fault (meaning that any draft post might be randomly published at any time) or my own fault (meaning that I’m incompetent). I don’t see any discussion of this problem in the WordPress forums, so I have to assume it was just me. My apologies for taking up unnecessary space in your inbox!

This post from the Lingua Franca blog addresses the nature of complexity and obscurity in academic prose. Lucy Ferriss mentions the University of Chicago sentence generator (which I discussed here) and then evaluates some of the pitfalls of academic writing. I particularly like her decision to direct attention away from jargon toward the prevalence of weak verbs. Jargon is an easy target: it can seem so gratuitous and so obstructive. But it is, in many cases, a red herring; jargon is often just doing its job and is thus not deserving of the amount of vitriol directed its way. (To be sure, I am talking specifically about academic writing and not bureaucratic or business writing; the use of jargon in those types of writing requires a very different analysis.) By deflecting concern away from the obvious suspect, Ferriss is able to turn her critical eye towards the verbs that are failing to animate the relationships between these bits of jargon (or ‘technical vocabulary’ as we say when we are trying to make nice). In Ferriss’s words, “we’ve lost sight of argument as action”. Solving this problem won’t be possible at the level of vocabulary choice; we will need to target the weakness that is often found at the heart of such sentences, the verb.

This post from the Hook and Eye blog deals with the length of writing assignments. The author makes a good case for asking students for shorter pieces of writing: that practice would allow instructors to pay closer attention and would increase the chances of giving feedback on multiple iterations of the same text. What if instructors assigned 3 pages to be submitted twice rather than 6 pages to be submitted only once? Obviously, there are unique skills involved in writing long texts, skills that all academic writers need to develop. And if short writing assignments were treated as insignificant precisely because they were short, that would undermine the value of this proposal. Overall, however, the close attention and multiple iterations might give students the chance to develop skills that they could later use in the pursuit of excellence in longer pieces of writing.

Break Writing is a collection of posts on academic writing from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University (they are called ‘break writing’ because they were sent at regular intervals over the recent winter break). These posts—all based around the importance of writing everyday—are full of helpful advice for academic productivity. Everyone needs different strategies and motivations, but I am sure there is something here for everyone. And the list of resources provides lots of places to look for more guidance.

Lastly, from the The Professor Is In blog, here is a good overview of a recent conference on non-tenure track faculty. The author provides her own take on the conference plus links to other reactions to this conference and the issue of contingent faculty more broadly. This topic falls outside the normal range of topics for this blog, except that academic writing can never be divorced from the professional circumstances under which academics write.

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Links: Appreciating Feedback, PhD Reflections, Negative Results

Here is a great post from the Hook and Eye blog about the role of reviewers and editors in the writing process. I liked this post for two reasons. First, I appreciate the emphasis on the learning that can happen during the submission/rejection/revision/acceptance process. Throughout this process, there will be feedback on your writing; not all of it will be constructive and helpful, of course, but much of it will. Being open to learning from that feedback is crucial. Second, the post offers a valuable reminder that the writing we read—and desire to emulate—has been through so much polishing. Given how hard we all are on our own writing, we can’t have too many reminders about how much revision published work has been through.

Here is something from Inside Higher Ed on the singular moment of finishing a PhD: what is lost, what is gained, and what we should understand about ourselves as we prepare for the next step.

Finally, an old joke with a thought-provoking punch line from the Crooked Timber blog.

Links: Life of the Mind, Scientists in the News, In Defence of the Humanities PhD

From Inside Higher Ed, here is an essay about the implications of the shifting attitudes of universities to the study of humanities; according to Andrew Taggart, if our universities continue to move from a ‘welfare’ to a ‘neo-liberal’ view of education, humanities research will suffer. With this in mind, the author suggests some new models for thinking about the life of the mind outside a university setting.

Here are two interesting reflections on the role of scientists as interpreters of current events. Writing in the University of Venus blog, Itir Toksöz discusses the role of scientists as experts, arguing that their highest responsibility should be to present the general public with accurate scientific information. The Women in Wetlands blog discusses how the scientific approach to certainty can be misused to justify opposition to established scientific claims.

I have to admit, I was tired of these so-you-want-to-get-a-[degree] videos almost as soon as I saw my first one: the cynicism quotient is just too high for me. So I was interested to see one–Yes, I want to get a PhD in the Humanities–that tries to acknowledge some of the privilege and pleasure of graduate study in the humanities. I was subsequently even more interested in the virulence of the reaction to this video; commenters were very quick, I thought, to suggest that any expression of positivity in this realm was naive if not delusional. Finally, if you are curious about these videos, here is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education about the broader phenomenon of Xtranormal videos.

Links: Job Interviews, Being Literal, Scholarly Reportage

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, this blogger suggests replacing face-to-face job interviews with video conferencing. I am not sure whether this is, in fact, a coming trend, but I did wonder what such a shift in practice might mean for how both sides of the equation assess the interaction. Communicative cues are so complex; what would we need to learn to present ourselves successfully via this new medium? Also writing in Inside Higher Ed, Dean Dad makes one particularly important suggestion: all interviews in a given round would have to be conducted via the same technology. It would not be fair for some to have face-to-face meetings while others had to engage in the more complex task of presenting themselves remotely.

This post from Motivated Grammar addresses the difference between prescriptivism and preference. In this case, the author dislikes ‘literally’ when it is used as a general intensifier (and thus not in the literal sense of literally) not because such usage deviates from some rule but because it is hyperbolic. Although most of us rarely need to take a position on the prescriptivism debate, we do need to think about how we make writing decisions. When we argue against a particular usage on the grounds of its actual strengths or weaknesses, we do more for the overall health of our writing than when we protest against its deviance from some imagined norm.

This article from Inside Higher Ed considers whether scholarly reportage–a method of inquiry that combines social theory with accessible narrative–is a passing trend or a credible option for scholarly work. I am curious what a method that blends ‘scholarship, memoir, and journalism’ might mean for writing. Working in multiple genres for a multifaceted audience would demand impressive writing skills. For more on this type of writing, here is an article from Dissent about Andrew Ross and the last twenty-odd years of cultural studies.

Links: Meritocracy, Artful Sentences, Comprehensive Exams

From Inside Higher Ed, here is an argument against restricting the levels of graduate school admissions. Tucker argues that admitting fewer PhD candidates is a poor response to the lack of academic jobs; he doesn’t want to see the pool of talent diminished before graduate students have a chance to begin their training. While he admits that graduate school is not a perfect meritocracy, he still prefers the idea of training more students than the academic job market can handle. Here is a strongly worded response to Tucker, one that suggests that this argument for meritocracy predictably ignores structural factors.

Here is a widely shared article from Slate about the art of the sentence. The article and the book it is reviewing (Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One) are both ultimately concerned with literary writing, but I was interested in the assessment of the enduring popularity of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “It is spoken in the voice of unquestioned authority in a world where that no longer exists. . . . And when it comes to an activity as variable, difficult, and ultimately ungovernable as writing sentences, the allure of rules that dictate brevity and concreteness is enduring.”

Finally, here is a blog post from Hook and Eye on preparing for comprehensive exams; the author is collecting tips on studying for these types of exams, so check the comments for further insights from other graduate students.