Enhancing the student experience in the classroom, the lab and beyond

“We want to give our students the best chance for success,” he said. “And that’s exactly what SKILLSETS represents,” says Graduate Education Officer David Syncox.

Workshops arm participants with wide range of practical skills

By Neale McDevitt

Even though his time and energy are stretched thin, David Syncox has trouble hiding his enthusiasm for SKILLSETS, a suite of professional development workshops designed to complement the academic experience of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at McGill.

“We want to give our students the best chance for success,” he said. “And that’s exactly what SKILLSETS represents.”

Wide-ranging in scope, the workshops cover everything from academic integrity to dissemination of research to teaching competence. The new program, which began last fall, is a joint effort between Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and Teaching and Learning Services.

“SKILLSETS focuses on a number of areas,” said Syncox, Graduate Education Officer, Teaching and Learning Services, “including communication and teaching skills, career development, research management and issues related to the ethical conduct of research.”

To develop each workshop the SKILLSETS team works with partners from McGill’s various Faculties, units, departments and even students. Some ideas are launched from the team, others come from the community. If approached with an idea for a workshop, Syncox helps facilitate everything right up to the delivery of the final product. “Sometimes that means I’m actually helping to develop the workshop itself, while other times I’m merely helping to promote it and to register people for it.”

A perfect case in point is the SKILLSETS MyResearch set of workshops. “Graduate students wanted to know what strategies they could use to get their research out there,” said Syncox. “How do they promote themselves? What journals are relevant?

“Working with people from the Library, we developed a series of four workshops to teach graduate students how our libraries work and to develop skills that would benefit their research,” said Syncox, “including one module that focused on the dissemination of research.

“We ended up creating four modules that were launched in five different libraries at the same time to provide a disciplinary context. MyResearch was offered twice in February and we had more than 200 people register.”

The very organic nature of SKILLSETS means that sometimes projects are completed on a wish and a prayer…and a lot of last-minute hard work. This past December, Syncox was approached by a grad student in human genetics who wanted to organize 10 workshops from January to May on basic business skills for non-Business graduate students.

“We said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’ and next thing you know, we had 40 students registered and 10 topics selected… but no professors,” said Syncox with a laugh. “But the people from the Desautels Faculty of Management were great. They bought into it and gave us the contacts we needed. Today the workshops are up and running, covering topics like financing and basic accounting.

“We don’t turn down anything,” said Syncox with a smile.

SKILLSETS is just one program designed to enhance the experience of McGill’s graduate students. “Martin Kreiswirth [Associate Provost (Graduate Education)] has made it his mission to increase graduate enrolment, recruitment and retention,” said Syncox. “The understanding is, if we provide a comprehensive program that complements students’ academic experience, they might be more inclined to choose McGill.”

As it increases in popularity, SKILLSETS is broadening its target audience as well.

“What about the U3s who are going on to grad school?” asked Syncox rhetorically. “Who is going to help them write applications for funding? Where will they get those skills? We are – in a spring workshop designed to support them in writing winning applications.”

When asked if the program can get too big, Syncox smiled. “If you bring me your idea, I’ll make it happen.”