In 2017, Concordia University’s GradProSkills and McGill University’s SKILLSETS programs embarked on a pilot project to explore the ways in which they could work towards enhancing PhD students’ career management skills, which are broadly defined as the type of “skills that best enable individuals to plan and pursue life, learning and work opportunities.” As has been stated before, there is an imbalance between the number of PhD students graduating in Canada and the number of available academic positions. Stories of doctoral students who first discover the very slim likelihood of obtaining a tenure-track position at the end of their program are also far too common. Preparing students for non-academic positions involves multiple challenges, and helping individuals develop a sense of agency about planning and pursuing career and life objectives has become an important goal for many graduate professional development (GPD) programs.
Recognizing that GPD programs may have an important role to play in the development of student career management skills, the project team also understood that such programs exist within a wider ecosystem. During their studies, PhD students navigate many environments – an important one being the university. Organizations, such as universities, cannot be viewed through a single lens; they are made up of a set of interrelated environments that work together in a tightly knit ecosystem. The team therefore decided to approach the project from an organizational perspective. A systems’ approach (human performance technology) was adopted to identify key stakeholders and processes related to PhD student career management development. The approach also guided the team in the design of questions used to gather information about what the university was doing well – and less well – in terms of effectively assisting PhD students in developing their career management skills.
PhD students, PhD alumni, supervisors and academic administrators from the fields of engineering and the humanities at Concordia and McGill were interviewed. One of the main themes that emerged from the interviews was knowledge – or rather the lack thereof. Lack of awareness of information was prevalent across the different participant categories and characterized a situation in which information is available, but the person to whom it is destined is not always aware of it, or simply does not access it. Students, for example, did not know how to make connections with industry or that their academic skills could be transferred to industries; supervisors did not know about non-academic careers and the skills required by industry; students, supervisors and administrators did not know about the existence of professional development skills’ programs. As frustrating as this was for the team to hear – both GradProSkills and SKILLSETS make significant efforts in communicating such information to all of these groups – it also opened up a new perspective as to the knowledge-bridging role that GPD programs can and should play.
The concept of knowledge brokering
In a university setting, knowledge brokering often refers to the need for communicating research findings to the outside community, or bridging the gap between research and policy or practice. However, in the management or organizational literature, knowledge networking or brokering includes the idea of “crossing organizational boundaries such as departments or organizations, or cultural boundaries such as disciplines in order to exchange knowledge or mediate interactions.” Similar to organizations in many other sectors, the university environment includes professional tribes and specialized domains, which, in the case of higher education institutions, encompass academic versus managerial, or student-service domains. GPD units engage in brokering activities all the time: they cross institutional boundaries and work with colleagues from other domains, interact with different “tribes” and disseminate (or attempt to disseminate) information. However, as indicated by the preliminary findings of the project on PhD career management skills, GPD units may not be wholly successful at it or conscious of the fact that they are indeed taking on the role of knowledge brokers.
The concept of knowledge brokering has been linked to social network theory, and in this field’s lingo, brokers are said to reach across a structural hole. If we consider the university to be a network of members (or actors), a hole exists when two actors are not connected. As illustrated by the findings of the pilot study, structural holes exist in the university, and GPD units may not always be bridging those holes effectively. The advantages of knowledge brokering seem obvious. Brokers can facilitate access to novel information, hidden resources, facilitate transfer of knowledge, and co-ordinate effort across networks. The bridges that are built by brokers can help generate innovative ideas, increase the quality of creative work, and produce strong ties to create environments in which collaboration can flourish.
Crossing boundaries requires a lot of work, and it also takes effort to maintain the bridges that are created over time. A first step, however, is for GPD units to become conscious of the networks that they belong to – as well as those they should belong – and identify the holes that could be bridged. Another step could include the integration of a knowledge brokering lens into daily work activities, or yearly planning exercises. By embracing the role of knowledge broker, GPD programs can concentrate on building those bridges so that not only the wealth of information and knowledge they have can be shared, but new ideas can be generated to solve the problems they are trying to address collaboratively. Only then can complex problems, such as the enhancement of PhD career management skills, be addressed in a comprehensive manner.