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Training the trainers

The importance of mentorship in graduate education


While cutting-edge research remains the backbone of graduate education, it is imperative that universities and faculty members be more proactive in helping their trainees develop a full range of soft skills, as well as a network beyond academia to allow them to succeed in career opportunities in the global marketplace. This requires an institutional recognition that the purpose of graduate education is not solely to groom students for careers in academia, but also to foster the development of critical thinkers and problem solvers who will be highly valued leaders in non-academic sectors.

Professors should realize that most of their trainees will not pursue academic careers, and that such options are not indications of failure. Gaining an understanding of what can be done with a PhD during the student’s early years will facilitate this mentoring role. Providing opportunities for career development is an important next step.

For instance, most supervisors are likely aware that publications in elite journals are no longer the sole ticket to a guaranteed tenure-track position or a non-academic research position. Today’s recruiters, academic and non-academic alike, are looking for more than academic excellence. Other essential qualities include: effective communication towards all audiences, leadership, initiative, teamwork abilities shown through collaborations across disciplines and institutions, and a proven track record of success at all stages of their changing career. Supervisors should help their trainees develop a more fulsome skill set which often means allowing students time away from their research work. In turn, these skill-building activities enrich the graduate’s experience and can often also enhance research activities. Supervisors should be trained to advise their students on how to prepare for diverse career paths well in advance of their thesis defense, not after they graduate. Without preparation, the risks are misaligned expectations, avoidable disappointments on both sides, and, worse of all, opportunities for not maximizing efforts to ensure job market readiness. They should also become more aware of the various options for employment, such as in biotechnology, business, pharma, communications, law, administration and policy.

So where can a supervisor go to get this knowledge or expertise? Several universities have begun to develop targeted programs for the professional development of faculty members, such as the centre for faculty development at the University of Toronto. Perhaps these units could offer workshops to “train the trainers” showing faculty members how they can help their students develop a diverse set of skills for career success. Guest panelists could also include leaders outside academia who can bring advice to the supervisors about networking and various career trajectories. Another alternative method would be to attend student-run career networking receptions, such as U of Toronto’s Life Sciences Career Development Society. It’s not only graduate students who should build their network outside the walls of academia.

Another program worth considering is the inclusion of a career mentor for students alongside the traditional academic committee as at the University of Alberta. Perhaps, supervisory committees could include an external mentor drawn from the pool of graduate alumni. Their role is to focus the student on their broader skills development, networking and job readiness. Certainly, graduate programs should recognize that their graduates are not on a single academic track, and that one size does not fit all.

Students who graduate with a strong track record of research success, a diverse skill set, a broad network, the ability to market themselves with clarity of purpose, are well positioned to make the transition from graduate school into meaningful work, and the transitions they will face throughout life. We have laid out herein some ideas for how graduate students, their supervisors and their universities could get started in helping smooth out this transition, and close the gap between intent and reality with respect to expectations of our graduate students. For many institutions and supervisors, what we are proposing requires a dramatic change in how they think of themselves and the role they play in training their students, not just for academia, but for the diverse range of career options in today’s global workplace. It is a change that is long overdue.

Reinhart Reithmeier is a professor and former chair of the department of biochemistry at the University of Toronto. Nana Lee is a lecturer at University of Toronto dedicated to the professional development of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Pamela Plant is a research coordinator at Keenan Research Center for Biomedical Sciences at St. Michael’s Hospital and Zayna Khayat is at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

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  1. Derrick Rancourt / May 19, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Recently I have been using the informational interview in my Biomedical Engineering Research Seminar Course at the University of Calgary. Each student is assigned a career path to present to the class. This way students are shown the vista of careers outside of academia. Each student must use networking to identify a professional working in their assigned career and arrange an informational interview. As an experiential learning process, informational interviews are meaningful because they are motivating. Students pay more attention while participating. Experiential learning activates both sides of the brain; it appeals to multiple intelligences and creates episodic memory. After the experience, I ask students to reflect on the experience. They realize that networking is not that difficult and that most people are giving of their time. After the course many students continue use informational interviews as a career exploration tool.

    • Nana Lee / May 25, 2015 at 10:59 pm

      Thank-you for sharing, Dr. Rancourt! Cold calls and informational interviews are part of my Graduate Professional Development course in Dept of Biochemistry and Immunology at U of Toronto as well. I have had several students land internships and careers by learning the cold call, informational interviews, and networking techniques. Happy to see that others are incorporating these ideas.

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