The Graduate and Postdoctoral Student Experience
“I blog because of the dialogue and idea sharing.” | Crystal Ernst
When Crystal Ernst wanted to lock down a definition for “micro-arthropod,” a slippery term that could refer to several types of insects, she turned to the blogosphere. Crystal is a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, where she’s studying the ecology of ground insects in Arctic Canada. In addition to being one of 21 “Grad Life” bloggers for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, Crystal writes about her research on her own blog (“The Bug Geek”) and contributes to other entomology sites.
One day she might pose a query relating to her research. Or post photos of pseudoscorpions collected during fieldwork along the remote Dempster Highway. Or share a cheeky graph documenting the ups and downs of her paper-writing process. “Sure, it’s a platform for talking about what I’m interested in,” Crystal says, “but it’s definitely a two-way process. I blog because of the dialogue and idea sharing.” She’s had readers from around the world forward relevant journal articles, relate their own experiences, and just write to say how refreshing it is to know that someone else shares their academic struggles. “There’s an idea that grad students should just sit at lab benches and churn out papers. But I really think that blogging–and other outreach activities–enhance our own skill sets as well as provide benefits to audiences, especially outside academic communities.” In just two years, Grad Life has grown to become the most visited McGill blog. Its 21 talented student contributors write on topics ranging from research progress to time management, to balancing study with a healthy lifestyle.
Crystal isn’t alone in wanting to develop her talents. With only 30 to 40 per cent of new Canadian PhDs pursuing university careers, the demand for enhanced skills is so huge that McGill has responded in all-caps: SKILLSETS is a joint initiative of Teaching and Learning Services and Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies that prepares grads for success in any sector. “Students now need different types of information to move forward in their careers because they’re often choosing non-academic pathways,” explains David Syncox, Graduate Education Officer in Teaching and Learning Services and SKILLSETS point-man. “They recognize that they need new skills, and they want to learn them.”
Syncox got that message loud and clear when med students May Shawi and Rabia Khan approached him about organizing a one-off workshop for students looking to supplement their scientific knowledge with a little business savvy. SKILLSETS has grown from there. Last year, more than 5,000 grad students and postdocs attended 235 presentations and workshops. Its success was also acknowledged as it was awarded the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS)/Educational Testing Service (ETS) Award for excellence and innovation in 2012. Today’s grad students have a lot of questions–from what reviewers look for in a fellowship application to how to manage your online presence–and SKILLSETS is helping to answer them.
But some questions are simply too tough: Crystal never did get a ruling on what constitutes a micro-arthropod. “But it generated some really good discussion about the difficulties of ecological terminology!”
Other highlights that underscore McGill’s commitment to ensure its graduate student experience remains world-class include:
Three Minutes to Change the World, a new Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies initiative debuted in March 2012, gave ten Master’s and PhD students the chance to present a summary of their current research and its implications to an audience of colleagues, professors, community members and an international following via live webcast–in only three minutes each.
Last year, McGill created expanded offerings in training for graduate supervisors and is adding a suite of workshops to help faculty members improve their teaching and mentoring skills. In addition, work has begun on a web-based hub with comprehensive tools, resources and training modules for educators.
The McGill Writing Centre announced new initiatives to improve scholarly writing for all thesis graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The MWC will offer activities designed to enhance scholarly writing, including instruction in writing strategies and techniques, self-editing processes and the development of peer-review groups and dissertation “boot camps.”