The Knowledge Café: Preparing graduates for the real world

Providing graduate students with a practical edge and real-world experience beyond the theoretical. The McGill School of Information Studies combines industry, skill, and experience in one course.

In today's job market, university graduates may need more than just a degree to land their ideal job. As students , many are in need of guidance but also a practical edge and some real-world experience beyond the theoretical.   

A few years ago, a group of faculty members at the School of Information Studies (SIS) addressed what they viewed as a lack of professional exposure in their Master of Information Studies (MISt) program, identifying untapped learning needs that ranged from industry-specific insight to professional skills, like emotional and social competencies that are crucial to success. Consulting with employers, alumni, and each of their own intellectual backgrounds, they created a capstone course to prepare Masters students for careers in the industry, along with professional skills needed to lay a strong foundation for the future. Over the last two years, GLIS 602: Integrating Research and Practice has been lauded by students for the course’s conclusive tradition, The Knowledge Café. 

Developed by the instructor Max Evans, the Knowledge Café wraps-up and solidifies principles shared in class by bringing students face-to-face with knowledge industry professionals. It is like any casual ‘speed-dating’ event, where students ask questions, listen to experiences, and can hopefully gain insights into the diversity of information studies as the field constantly expands. 

“As new technologies and roles are emerging, and traditional boundaries between positions are blurred, it is important for students to be exposed to actual professionals in the field. Since my professional experience is limited to the business/management domain, I can only try and facilitate a connection to the many other domains information professionals inevitably work in,” says Evans. 

Professor Evans personally invites each professional, making sure the students have a wide range of vocations to tap into. Many are SIS alumni, with this year’s guests included professionals from the National Research Council, Bombardier, McGill Libraries, CBC and Radio-Canada, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), as well as other libraries and management firms. Some alumni at the 2018 Café included Robin Canuel, Humanities Social Sciences Head Librarian; Mathieu Demers, a Knowledge Management Advisor at Bombardier, and Cate Henderson, Media Librarian & Archivist at CBC/Radio-Canada. 

In the Knowledge Café, students break into small groups and rotate between tables, while professionals stay put. The short amount of time allotted – three hours for 60 students to speak with 10-15 professionals – makes formal or small-talk a major obstacle. However, communication skills and networking are part of the course’s overall aim of building real world skills through practice, and the chance to practice their class-grown skills is another win for students. 

Since the course is only offered in the Master’s students’ final semester, the Knowledge Café might offer a small preview of the ‘real world’ for those who do not have much work experience, or a taste of possible other fields for those who have. The event was inspired by a conference attended by Professor Evans, where the Q&A was delivered in speed-dating style. He finds it a helpful strategy to alleviate students’ anxieties about the future, especially when innovations in technology are constantly changing the way information is consumed.  

“It’s also about introducing students to a new profession. For example, one of our professionals is the lead of intelligence and analytics services at the National Research Council of Canada, and all his employees must have our Master's degree. Another manages a team of information professionals who conduct research that enables Canadian entrepreneurs to secure bank loans. We invite different types of librarians, knowledge managers, archivists. There are really cool fields in Information Studies, some that students may not know of…. And many of the fields are also new and emerging,” says Evans. 

Industry experience and coursework don’t have to be separate entities. While a small School in the Faculty of Arts, the School of Information Studies is an important hub for fostering cross-disciplinary understanding around human-information interaction. The Knowledge Café, a space for human-human interaction on this relationship, is uniquely addressing characteristics, needs, and the future of the field. 

Professor Evans gets so many nice notes from both students and professionals about how much they enjoy the Knowledge Café each year, he considers himself lucky to be able to make that connection for them. According to him, "the professionals who come, I sense real empathy and an eagerness to help. I encourage our students to always ask for help, because the worst you could be told is no.”