By Neale McDevitt
David Syncox will always remember the very first SKILLSETS workshop he helped organize in 2009, one designed to help graduate students better prepare their grant proposals. “I asked around and was told to expect between 50-60 people,” says the Graduate Education Officer, Teaching and Learning Services. “Instead, we had 360 registrations. Are you kidding me? Where was I going to sit all those people?”
Syncox lined up a conference room at the Omni hotel and the workshop went off without a hitch, but the message was clear; graduate students wanted professional development in a big way. And SKILLSETS, a suite of workshops designed for graduate and postdoctoral students to complement their research training and provide them with general, transitional and professional skill development opportunities, was the answer.
Propelled by that early enthusiasm among participants, SKILLSETS has been gaining momentum every year. In the program’s first year (it was launched in September 2009 as a collaborative effort between Teaching and Learning Services and the Graduate Studies Program), it held 134 events that were attended by some 4,000 people. The core workshops concentrated on skills very specific to the academic realities of graduate students, including sessions on learning to teach, getting more out of McGill Libraries and securing funding.
This past year, 235 SKILLSETS events drew over 5,000 graduate and post-doctoral students, with an expanded repertoire that now includes modules based on themes such as basic life skills; integrity and ethical conduct; and societal and civic responsibility. And the success is not just internal. Earlier this week, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS) announced that the program had won the annual CAGS/ETS Award for Excellence and Innovation in enhancing the graduate student experience.
Although he is the SKILLSETS point man, Syncox credits its success to a network of people across the University. “I’m the guy on the end of the phone but it’s really the McGill community that has embraced a graduate education initiative. First-Year Office, Student Services, the Office of Sponsored Research, the Office of the Dean of Students, Career Planning Services – I really can’t name an office that hasn’t been a part of it.
“But the vision comes from Marty,” he says.
Marty is Martin Kreiswirth, Associate Provost (Graduate Education) and Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Kreiswirth is a longtime champion of graduate studies, coming to McGill in 2007 from the University of Western Ontario where he was dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. He has also served as President of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and President of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools.
“I’ve been in graduate education a long time and I’ve had the opportunity to take a larger view,” says Kreiswirth. “When I came to McGill I saw it as a great opportunity to capitalize on what we were already doing in bits and pieces. McGill was a fertile place to get this going.”
Kreiswirth was particularly impressed with the support SKILLSETS got from McGill Administration. “We got buy-in right away because the Principal [Heather Munroe-Blum] and the Provost had made it clear that graduate education was one of the highest priorities for McGill.
“And from there it’s been such a collaborative effort. We’ve had great support from the Deans, department chairs, the faculty members who volunteer their time – everyone,” says Kreiswirth. “There have been no turf wars because people recognize how important this is for the graduate and post-doctoral experience.”
Across North America, the added emphasis on support for graduate students and post-docs is a relatively new phenomenon. The traditional model of graduate studies (“where you got a supervisor and a lab coat and were told to go at it,” says Kreiswirth) isn’t adequate preparation for a life outside university.
With only 30-40 per cent of new PhDs actually pursuing careers in academia, there is a growing need to equip graduate students and post-docs with the tools needed to translate their research and training into success in the public and private sectors. These needs are addressed in a series of SKILSETS workshops that focus on such nuts-and-bolts issues as financial management, communication skills, how to run a start-up company and a 10-week course on basic business skills.
Building on success
What does the future hold for SKILLSETS? Syncox says it means expanding the collaborative network beyond the Roddick Gates. “The other piece of the puzzle is an external piece,” says Syncox. “It means bringing in our government and academic partners like Canadian Space Agency, for example.
“Just this year we have partnered with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office,” continues Syncox. “They are offering workshops on our campuses through SKILLSETS so that our graduate students, in the early stages, can get a sense of what they need to know about copyrights, patents, industrial designs, etc. so they can be informed when they talk to their supervisors.”
Another key to the program’s continued success is feedback. Many SKILLSETS participants are asked to fill out a questionnaire following an event and the satisfaction rating is close to 90 per cent.
“Two years ago we started surveying recent grads and PhDs who were in the workforce,” says Kreiswirth. “One of the questions we ask them is what skills did you feel that you needed when you came out and started your job; what skills did you feel you should have had; and what skills did you have? We are constantly evaluating ourselves and asking people how we can improve the program.”