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CAREER ADVICE

Does professional development really make a difference, anyway?

I’ve begun to doubt the value of professional development in favour of the school of hard knocks.

By FRANCINE MCKENZIE | OCT 06 2008

Recently, I attended a conference at which there were all the usual public speaking faux pas: continuing beyond the allotted time, ending abruptly having run out of time, reading papers, not making eye contact, speed talking, jangling change in pockets.

Don’t even get me started about the devotees of PowerPoint.

I had seen all of this before, but a diplomat in the audience, new to academic gatherings, was so surprised that he quietly evaluated each presentation: the scores ranged from a low of two to a high of eight out of ten.

Scholars can appear to be awkward, even inept, when it comes to the most fundamental aspect of the job: communicating ideas. Part of the reason for this shortcoming lies in the professional preparation of an academic.

To be good at the many and varied parts of the job, you not only need skills in education but also in writing, public speaking, marketing and even time management.

Yet how do we learn these things? In graduate school, most students will get some exposure to teaching, publish an article or two and apply for grants.

Certainly, many universities offer teacher training courses for graduate students. My own university, the University of Western Ontario, also has a Future Professor Series with a broader scope.

But few of the MA and PhD students in the history department attend such sessions, which they see as either too general or too specialized. Graduate students want discipline-specific training.

My own department held meetings to discuss professional development, but these were sporadic and depended on the initiative of individual faculty members.

So I decided to coordinate a year-long seminar for graduate students, drawing upon the experience and interests of my colleagues.

An eye-opening experience

I had expected that the sessions would be filled with common sense – easier to articulate than to act upon – and would provide clear-cut advice about how to fulfill the various parts of an academic’s job. That’s not exactly what happened.

Some of the insights were common sense. In the teaching seminars my colleagues emphasized the importance of hard work and enthusiasm, and pointed to potted histories to acquire instant mastery for a lecture topic beyond one’s academic expertise.

Totally unexpected, however, were the views of a celebrated undergraduate teacher about space and movement. He explained that where a professor sits in a seminar room affects the vectors of communication, which can be inclusive or selective, stimulating or limiting. When a seminar is set up with tables in a square, position yourself inside the square, he advised.

The session on marking didn’t unfold as I had anticipated either. My colleague advised graduate students to concentrate on high-order problems like the thesis statement rather than low order problems like spelling and punctuation. Better thinking, he insists, leads to better writing. So put away your red pens!

In the session on grant applications, students were let into the Star Chamber. My colleague explained that just getting your application to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is no mean feat.

First, students are ranked by their departments; those low on the list shouldn’t hold their breath. They then move to a university-wide competition. Because of time pressures, the assessors devote a couple of minutes to each file. If your application doesn’t grab their attention right away, it is headed for the reject pile.

A dwindling number eventually qualify to “leave the university” to compete for funds in Ottawa, where they stand about a 50-50 chance of success. With the SSHRC deadline fast approaching, students hurried off to write catchy opening lines in their applications.

For the MA students we held a session on applying for PhD programs. My colleagues explained that getting into a doctoral program is within the realm of the possible for many master’s students, but they emphasized that where you do your PhD will have an impact on where you end up in your career.

This was not surprising, but the suggestion to consider other career paths than pursuing a PhD caught the students off guard. They had expected this to be a recruitment session. Instead they found themselves considering career redirection.

Two of my colleagues had opposing views on publishing. One advised the standard academic path: publish the dissertation and write peer-reviewed articles. The other’s mantra is that anything you bother to write down could be, should be, publishable. He believes in writing for a broader audience (that includes his mother) instead of the six specialists in his field.

What kind of approach works best when you are applying for jobs, grants, fellowships? There isn’t a consensus.

To PD or not to PD

I learned from the seminar. I understood better why I instinctively move seats from one week to the next in seminars. I vowed not to get bogged down by spelling errors and the passive voice when marking papers, although I still believe the low-order problems need correcting. I revised a grant application with an eye to the non-specialist reader with a short attention span. I resolved to try my hand at writing for a broader audience, in venues like this one.

But I also began to doubt the value of professionalization. None of my colleagues sharing their “expertise” had the benefit of such seminars when they were graduate students in Canada, the United States and Britain. Yet their well-developed practices, sophisticated insights, and sometimes startling revelations confirm that people do learn at the school of trial and error.

Still, the seminar was designed for graduate students, not faculty. What was their reaction?

Students were grateful that their academic preparation was being broadened and brought down to earth. They were reassured because some of what they suspected was confirmed. There was persistent optimism despite some very discouraging messages.

Students believe in their own exceptionalism: their grant application will be the one to leave the university; they will land a tenure-track job at a major research university straight out of their defence; Harvard University Press will publish their unrevised dissertation.

Lessons learned

Toward the end of the academic year, attendance tapered off. There were some obvious reasons to explain dwindling numbers, such as writing papers and marking deadlines.

It might also be that a culture of complacency takes root early on among academics. We believe that we already know how to teach, write, speak in public.

But doing is not the same thing as doing well. One of the main objectives of the professional development seminar was to convey that point.

There were also encouraging signs of responsiveness and self-examination, as well as immediate results.

First and foremost, graduate students got to know faculty members they otherwise would not. Those contacts continue to develop.

As I walk down the hall, I notice teaching assistants sitting in the middle of a tutorial group; some of my colleagues are trying this out too.

A student got university funding for a conference because of information brought out at a session. A number of our students won major grants this year. Students published in peer-reviewed journals as well as popular ones.

Probably not all of these can be attributed to the professional development seminar.

But the seminar generated useful questions, confirmed that there isn’t one right way to be an academic, and made the point that students have decisions to make about the kind of scholars, teachers and professionals they can become.

Francine McKenzie is an associate professor in the department of history at the University of Western Ontario. You can see the 2008-09 schedule of her department’s professional development seminars here.

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