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Thinking CAPS for grads
McGill has a message for its 5,000 grad students: get a job... but not necessarily the job they have in mind.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Sponsored by McGill's Career and Placement Service (CAPS) and the Post-Graduate Students' Society (PGSS), Graduate Student Career Week addresses what Martha Crago, Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, cites as one of the major issues facing graduate studies today: "Helping students complete their degrees in a more timely manner," so they can start pulling a paycheque. Approximately 1,575 of McGill's grad students finish their programs each year. (The rough breakdown is 300 doctoral students, 550 master's with thesis students, and 725 non-thesis master's students.) Although certainly not advocating quantity over quality, Crago would like to see these numbers increase, and with good reason: to dabble in market lingo, employers are screaming for "highly qualified personnel."
With a large number of the professorial population nearing retirement age, explains Crago, Canadian universities are experiencing a long overdue spike in the need for fresh academic faces, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But, she adds, the wealth of job opportunities is by no means limited to the ivory tower.
"What's exciting in graduate studies right now are the career possibilities," she says. "As Canada tries to improve its international ranking in research and development, the government has an increased need for these 'highly qualified personnel' -- which usually means people with graduate degrees.
"That's a very rare phenomenon for graduate studies to be on the federal agenda. Politicians usually think of graduate studies as this arcane, silly thing to be doing with yourself, so this is a great political gain."
There are many factors affecting how long a student takes to complete a course of study (not the least of which is often money -- generally speaking, the less time a student needs to spend working to support themselves, the quicker they finish school), but Crago emphasizes the importance of guidance. That's where David Ainsworth, CAPS' new Career Advisor, comes into the picture. Born out of Ministère de l'Éducation funding earmarked for developing new forms of career and placement outreach, Ainsworth's position is the only one of its kind in Canada devoted exclusively to helping graduate students negotiate entry into the work world. He's also one of the key players behind this year's Career Week, and a veritable poster boy for nontraditional career paths. While completing his political science PhD dissertation at McGill, Ainsworth worked in project management at a software development firm. He later worked as a lobbyist for Rights & Democracy, a Montreal NGO. Now he's helping grad students shape their own paths, traditional or otherwise.
"I've been told that one of the reasons I was hired for this job is that not only have I done a PhD, but I also have experience in both the business and non-profit sectors," he explains. "So I can identify with the PhD students who say, 'I'm not sure I want to teach, so what do I do?' I can empathize with their concerns and fears.
"Many graduate students have probably finished their undergraduate, done a master's right away, and then started a PhD. If you spend this much time in a university setting, you may not know what it's like 'out there.' You can be a little frightened, and need to overcome the fear that people in the outside world won't like you.
"By helping students get their career paths targeted very quickly, we're also helping them get out of here faster. And for those who are thinking that academia isn't really for them, I can work with them and say, 'Right, you're having real doubts about your PhD, so why don't we start planning now where you're going to go after this.'"
Ainsworth works closely with the PGSS, offering one-on-one counselling to upward of twenty students each week, and running regular career workshops on topics such as retooling an academic c.v. to fit the non-academic job market.
Graduate Student Career Week promises similar insights by hosting panelists speaking on a range of topics. Ainsworth says the schedule is divided along the lines of the "three general directions graduate students can take when they finish their degrees." The first day's panels will address the nuts and bolts involved with university teaching jobs, such as choosing a university, preparing a successful application package, interview tips, gaining tenure, balancing teaching and research, and how to have a life outside of work.
"Even though we keep hearing that the academic job market is opening up," he says, "it's still hyper-competitive. A lot of graduate students say, 'I finished my dissertation and did well, but nobody prepared me for the interview process. Nobody taught me how to negotiate -- nobody even taught me that when I'm offered a job, I can negotiate.' Grad students need to know how to approach this properly."
The next two days are devoted to testimonials from students who finished degrees in the natural sciences and engineering (Tuesday) and the humanities and social sciences (Wednesday), offering firsthand knowledge of what it takes to make the move to non-university research jobs. "It's all about sharing stories," says Ainsworth, "so the students can see how it's done. These people show students that you can still follow your research, which is the reason you did your graduate degree in the first place, and make a go of it outside of the university."
Thursday will be devoted to the topic of "Changing Directions," what Ainsworth calls "the day for those students who say, 'Thank you very much, my graduate degree was a great experience, but I've got to go elsewhere.'" In addition to Ainsworth himself, the day's speakers will include an education and psychology PhD who now works as an information officer for the United Nations' Convention for Biological Diversity.
Friday's lineup includes a panel from Bioconcepts Forum, an initiative of McGill MBA and science grad students devoted to issues related to biotech start-up ventures.
"The traditional idea was grad students don't need career advice because their supervisor will help them get a job and that's the end of it," says Catherine Boisvert, a PGSS advisory board member who herself is taking a somewhat unorthodox grad studies path. (After "everything went wrong" with her PhD studies, she's now completing a master's related to ecology, evolution, genetics "and a bit of everything.") Boisvert helped organize last year's inaugural Career Week, and saw the modest event grow from a meager first-day turnout to a jam-packed finale.
"Grad students are reluctant to get outside of their lives -- or outside of their tiny labs -- because they're so busy," she says. "So unless something's targeted especially to themselves, they won't come. But they really need this kind of information.
"The Career Week gives them the opportunity to ask questions of people who they might not otherwise meet," she adds. "I mean, how often do you get to meet a physicist who became a management consultant?"
The McGill Graduate Student Career Week runs from February 3 to 7. Admission is free, and no registration is required. Schedules are available around campus, or at www.caps.mcgill.ca