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How universities can really help PhD grads get jobs

A rising tide floats all boats. Until recently this has been Canada’s attitude towards the fact that there are are more PhD students than there are academic jobs. Some in the sciences have warned that graduate training should be restricted: for example, fewer students could be trained in specialized programs, and then they could move onto professional scientist positions inside universities. But in Canada, compared to the United States, the small scale of grants means there are fewer opportunities for university science researchers.

Where will the surplus of science researchers go? How are universities responding to the fact that a majority of graduate student alumni are unemployed, sub-employed or have to receive training from a college in order to procure a good-paying job?

The broader political climate and ideologies that have an impact on post-secondary funding may be changing, placing graduate schools at odds: Ontario, for example, is now advising universities that funding will be more tied to skills and jobs outcomes.

In addition to my stem cell research as a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, I’ve begun research as a teaching scholar to look at how better teaching and support for science graduate students can enhance student learning, growth and employability.

Interviews aren’t just for facts

As part of my research, I’ve developed an informational interview assignment for the courses I teach — largely popular among the 200 students I’ve assigned this to.

In this assignment, students need to talk to an established person in the health sciences working beyond the university. Through these interviews, students also learn that often professionally established people generous with their time, investing themselves in student aspirations. Amongst professionals, students gain tacit skills, learn to read social cues and have constructive conversations. They imagine themselves in a professional role, which motivates them to focus on their career development.

Students also gain an awareness that talking to people and soliciting their input — stakeholder engagement — is not only relevant to good science research, but also to finding a job.

In the next phase of research — with Beth Archer-Kuhn in the Faculty of Social Work, co-author of this article — we will examine how informational interviews help students map their careers and realize the educational benefits of inquiry-based learning.

We’ll also look at how assigning these interviews are part of broader teaching strategies that support transformational learning supported by quality relationships. This means there would be a greater focus on students supporting and encouraging dialogue and inviting critical self-reflection through active learning, assessment and helpful critique, both in students’ classes or with research mentors or supervisors.

We are interested both in students’ holistic growth as learners, and their career development.

Amplify and name existing skills

Part of a better science graduate education is also about learning to articulate and tease out the marketability of existing skills that are already being learned.

Graduate students have much to offer the non-academic workplace, based upon their superior critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Employment challenges after graduate school may be partially due to an inability to explain or translate these skills into the broader workforce: a skills awareness gap.

Alongside learning disciplinary knowledge and skills, students need to learn how to reflect on what they are learning as research collaborators and how it is connected to broader employable skills (such as self management, communication and teamwork) and existing employment gaps.

In a survey we recently conducted of Alberta biomedical companies with a graduate student, our preliminary findings suggested that project management skills are in need. The survey asked the companies and recruiters for their perspective about graduate student employability by asking four questions:

  • What non-technical skills do graduate employees struggle with?

  • What non-technical skills do graduate employees excel at?

  • What skills link most to graduate employee success?

  • What’s the biggest change new graduates have to make?

Out of the 235 emails that were delivered to biomedical companies, 93 usable replies were returned.

We heard the No. 1 skill that hiring managers said graduate students lacked (at 68 per cent) was project management. Project management is experiencing significant growth. The Anderson Economic Group, a firm that analyzes industries, developed a report for the Project Management Institute that Canada is expected to need 90,000 new project management jobs by 2027, a significant number of them in health care.

Project management is relatively new for medicine and is expected to help address costs and quality. For example, project managers can help implement changes in process and procedures ensuring that all team members are following new guidelines.

The second skill the Alberta biomedical companies said graduate students need (at 32 per cent) was customer interaction — being skilled and knowledgeable in how to have a service-oriented disposition attuned to customer needs. In medicine, stakeholder management skills are particularly important based on how many different specialists, services or units can be involved in patient care, in addition to family members!

Preparing students

Parallels exist between the graduate thesis and project management. But while students are practising the skills of project management, they aren’t typically equipped to connect these skills and their best practices to the wider workforce.

This is unfortunate because formal project management training would both help graduate students complete tasks on time, produce higher quality research and better launch graduate students into professional opportunities.

Likewise, stakeholder interaction could be easily made explicit in graduate studies by getting students outside the ivory tower when they formulate their research ideas and write their theses.

Governments have called for greater research impact by translating an awareness of needs in society into research and development — in other words, acting in response to the pulls of the market. For example, in the field of health science research, a consideration of “market pulls” could include needs of service users, patients, or those who care for people who use services early in a research process.

Graduate students must think more about both their research and their professional profiles to position them to fill societal needs. Part of learning about that means engaging potential customers — project stakeholders — early in their research training. Informational interviews are just one part of doing so.

When students learn to pay attention to both critical thinking and relationships in the classroom, when they build connections to the world through inquiry-based and experiential learning and when they learn skills to engage stakeholders in their research, we hope to show their chances of success — and their buoyancy — increases.

By The Conversation
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