POSTS

  • 11 Jun 2021 2:34 PM | Manager GPDN (Administrator)

    It’s remarkable how many aspiring academic researchers do little or flawed research when applying to doctoral programs. Pity your authors here, who in the early 1990s had to do all their program research on paper, looking up addresses and sending snail mail inquiries for brochures. In the online age, the dilemma is working through the cascade of options, so we’ll have some pity for you, too. There are so many choices. How do you even decide where to apply (and send your application fee)? As we said, you need to approach grad school with a plan—a plan that has some options. With that in mind, you can start thinking about initial parameters to consider when sorting through programs.

    • Canadian vs. international: PhD programs are different in each country, and prospective students do not always realize this until they show up. Coursework is typically more extensive and longer in American PhD programs, where it is standard to admit students directly from the bachelor’s program. At the other end of the spectrum, British and Australian PhDs traditionally have no coursework at all, throwing students immediately into the dissertation (although some have introduced coursework and comprehensive exam requirements). Canadian PhDs are in the middle: shorter with less intensive training than American programs, but longer with more preparation than British and Australian ones. And that’s just the start of national variations. All of these can be great choices—just keep the basic distinctions in mind as you do your research.

    • Broad vs. specialized program: Doctoral programs are becoming ever more specialized and niched, meaning somewhere there is a program that probably exactly matches your interests—at least, your current interests. It’s obviously exciting to think, “This is exactly what I want!” But there are two risks here: (1) your interests can change, and (2) getting too specialized too early means you might not realize your interests have changed, and then wonder why you feel increasingly trapped and miserable. In contrast, a broad, disciplinary-wide program gives you more options and freedom to grow … grow, or flounder, that is. Give careful thought to which is best for your career aspirations: A specialized program may lead directly into a related professional field, while a broad program allows more flexibility and a chance to grow and adapt in new directions.

    • Big or small: Small PhD programs usually mean more faculty attention and a more intimate community, often around shared interests. Large programs have a richer selection of faculty and colleagues. Your fellow PhD program travellers are important here, as they have the potential to be important connections both while you are completing the program and in the decades that follow. Some will be future key professional contacts, working in industry, government, academia, and the not-for-profit sector; some will be future lifelong friends or nemeses. Small programs will naturally have smaller student cohorts (in some cases tiny cohorts), which can mean fewer contacts but the potential for tighter bonds; the reverse is true for larger programs, though you’re then not stuck with the same three people for the next 4+ years.

    • Academic vs. professional: Doctoral programs fall into three (sometimes overlapping) categories: traditional disciplinary PhDs, interdisciplinary programs, and professional doctorates that explicitly or implicitly market themselves as being for people aspiring to non-academic careers. Most universities offer a mix of these with varying degrees of overlap (e.g., professional programs are also likely to bill themselves as interdisciplinary, and faculty may teach and supervise in more than one program). The traditional appeal of the disciplinary programs is that they prepare people in depth for strong academic careers in the core of the discipline; the knock against them is that this is the only thing they tend to do. Interdisciplinary programs are argued to be more innovative; a downside here is that graduates who are interested in academic jobs struggle to position themselves since they don’t quite fit in several different disciplines at once and academic hiring committees often want candidates that can teach broad disciplinary courses.

    For many, the big question is between the academic and the professional programs, with a fear that choosing one cuts off opportunities in the other. The good news is that this is mostly not true: Universities sometimes hire people with professional PhDs, and individuals with academic PhDs flourish in a wide range of sectors. It mostly depends on what you actually do in the PhD – the breadth, depth, and skills you acquire and how you position yourself, which is what this book is all about. If one option strongly resonates with you, go for it. Having said that, traditional academic disciplinary PhDs are the normal default choice.

    Having formed a general idea of what sort of programs you are drawn to, you can now sort through which programs to apply to. Here are some things that might influence your decision:

    • Name brand: Prestigious universities have many strengths— international recognition, deep pools of eminent faculty, fat endowments, and so forth. These can all be good for your grad school and long-term career. On the other hand, prestigious universities can be coasting on their reputations or be such vast operations loaded with egos that there’s little time or attention for lowly grad students. They also sometimes offer less funding, since they feel less pressure to compete for students.

    • Bigshot name: You dream of going to University X to study under the great Professor Y. Nothing wrong with that, and ideally it will be a life-changing experience. But sometimes the dream is rudely crushed. The great scholar may be so busy and overloaded that they barely learn your name, with supervision effectively delegated to a subordinate. And you may discover that the great thinker has an odious personality.

    • Bench strength: Whether or not there is a Mighty Famous Bigshot, you need to also look at the rest of the faculty in the program. (Be sure to distinguish between different programs on the same campus.) Are there names you recognize or whose research areas look interesting? You want to be sure this is a place where you can feel at home and form a strong supervision committee. Beware again of the above perils of big names, as once you arrive you may well discover a wise mentor who you didn’t initially notice. But a good rule of thumb is that if you don’t get excited scrolling through the list of program faculty and their interests, the program is not for you. In social science and humanities disciplines, students are often admitted into the program as a whole, then set loose to wander up and down the halls to find a supervisor. (Sort of.) Given this, you want to have a reasonably target-rich environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean a long list in your specific subfield, which may indeed just have a couple of people. But they should be backed up by others who can also be of use to you.

    • Program requirements: While the formats of social science and humanities PhD programs are common enough that we’ve gone ahead and written this book about them, there can be significant differences even within the same discipline, and even more for interdisciplinary programs. Research these as much as you can, such as what courses are required and how comprehensive exams work. Admittedly, it may be difficult to know what to do with this information, especially if you’re just reading it off the program website with no insider knowledge. However, you may come across important or striking things that affect your choices or encourage you to make direct inquiries to the program (“Is it true that every doctoral student has to learn three languages to pass their comps?”).

    • Past degrees: Students are often advised to complete their bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees at different universities. The reason is that moving between universities exposes students to more faculty, diversifying the students’ influences, networks, and opportunities. While this is not possible for everyone, there is general wisdom in this advice, and you should consider looking at options beyond your familiar stomping grounds.

    • Personal: This is the tricky one. Do you have personal reasons that place geographic restrictions on your choices? The toughest challenge is balancing your interests with those of a partner; you may also have other family obligations or reasons. There’s no simple answer here since only you can decide the sacrifices you are willing to make.

    There will be tradeoffs among these six considerations for deciding which programs to apply to, and we cannot tell you which is most important. But we can say that your decision should not rest overwhelmingly on just one. We are going to say that again—don’t make your decision based solely on any one of these. It’s fine to have one be the key reason … as long as others are also supporting your decision.


    About the Authors:

    Jonathan Malloy is chair of the Department of Political Science at Carleton University and Loleen Berdahl is a professor and Head of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Learn more about building your graduate career in their book Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, summer 2018).


  • 7 May 2021 2:22 PM | Manager GPDN (Administrator)

    Not sure what kind of jobs are relevant to your degree? Want to start networking but not sure where to begin? Or just want to learn more about a career before getting started? 

    Well, informational interviews are a perfect way to do all of that. 

    What is an informational interview?

    Informational interviews are all about building relationships and collecting information that can help you make decisions about your career - whether it be clarifying next steps in your exploration or education, learning about the day-to-day responsibilities of different jobs, or the types of places you’d want to work. 

    While the world “interview” may make the concept sound intimidating, informational interviews are just conversations with someone who works in a position or area that interests you. 

    Through these conversations you can:

    • Meet new people and expand your professional and personal network

    • Learn about different jobs and positions in a particular industry or field

    • Get insight into what the typical work day is like in a specific role (e.g. Is the work very collaborative or independent? Is there a lot of traveling involved?)

    • What the work culture is like in a particular organization

    • What sort of skills, education, or training might be required

    These insights are typically much deeper, personal, and more time-relevant than what you can find on the internet. This can help you better decide on the types of careers, jobs, and even companies that you might want to explore further. 

    Beyond just learning about jobs and careers, informational interviews can also be used by students and postdoctoral fellows to:

    • Explore educational programs from the perspective of a current student

    • Learn about the work conditions and the types of research taking place in a lab or research team 

    • Explore internship or residency opportunities 

    Regardless of what you’re hoping to get out of an informational interview, it’s important to remember that they are NOT job interviews. When someone agrees to meet with you for an informational interview, the assumption is that you’re not applying for a job and you’re not asking for a job. Instead, it’s an opportunity for you to establish a relationship and learn more about a career, industry, program, research team, etc. Overtime, building these relationships can help get you connected to job opportunities that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. 

    How informational interviews might be useful

    Apart from learning about different careers, informational interviews are also a great way to start meeting people in the industries you’re excited about. Because networking in career fairs, conferences, and other large events can often feel stressful and challenging, many students find informational interviews a better way to build longer lasting relationships that feel more genuine and authentic. The people you talk to can become friends, mentors, or even future colleagues. 

    Over time, this can help you tap into what’s commonly referred to as the “hidden job market.” Sometimes employment opportunities aren’t advertised and are instead filled by word-of-mouth and referrals. By meeting new people in companies you’re interested in, you can increase your chances of learning about unadvertised or poorly advertised job openings. 

    Setting up these conversations can also help you polish your interview skills and learn the “lingo” inside your industry of interest. By building confidence talking to strangers and pitching your value proposition, many students start to feel more comfortable talking to people in an actual job interview or larger networking events. 

    Apart from being great for career-mapping and networking, informational interviews can also be an invaluable life skill. Labour markets and industry trends change rapidly and often in unpredictable ways - for instance, think of the impact COVID-19 has had on job markets globally. Informational interviews can help you learn how to cope with changes in job markets and how to pivot your career to adjust to those changes and explore new careers that might emerge as a result. 

    Finding someone to talk to

    Once you have an idea of the types of careers or industries you’d like to target, there are many ways you can approach finding someone there to talk to. 

    • Friends, Family, Peers, Colleagues: Talk to the people around you and let them know what you’re looking for. Word-of-mouth is a great way to get introduced to new people for informational interviews. You never know who someone might know! 

    • LinkedIn: For those who prefer social-media, LinkedIn can be a great way to connect with others virtually. You can use filters to search for people based on keywords, job titles, companies, or schools. Many students find that reaching out to alumni is a great way to get started. Because you’ve both attended the same school you immediately have something in common. When you’ve found someone you’re interested in meeting, send them a short message introducing yourself and ask if they’d be interested in meeting you for an informational interview.

      LinkedIn also indicates whether you have any mutual connections. If it’s more comfortable, you can always reach out to your existing connections to ask if they can introduce you.

    • University Career Days and Events: Schools and institutions often host career related events. These are great opportunities to meet new people because everyone there is essentially hoping to do the same thing. To make it easier, you can always attend with a friend and make new connections together.

    • Student and Professional Associations: Joining a relevant association can be a great way to meet like-minded people. Similar to universities, associations also often organize similar career or networking events.

    • From the Person You Just Met: A great way to get connected with more and more people as you conduct information interviews is to ask the person you’re meeting if there’s anyone else they would recommend you talk to. Building new connections this way is exactly what networking is all about.

    Preparing for an informational interview

    Having a script or a list of questions isn’t needed for an informational interview. But for those who are nervous or attending an informational interview for the first time, preparing a list of questions or topics you’d like to talk about can act as a good safety net. 

    Questions can center around a variety of different topics::

    • Personal: How might you fit in a particular role or company? Does that position or company align with your goals, values, and passion?

    • Qualifications: These can be regarding education, training, or other certification requirements. But you can also ask about skills and personality traits relevant to the role, this can help you get a sense of whether certain careers are a good fit for you.

    • Career Landscape: Is the industry growing and how might it change in a couple years? What sort of entry-level opportunities are available and how might you find them?

    • Building Leads: Once you’ve built a strong relationship with your interviewee they’ll likely become invested and want to see you succeed. After a couple meetings, they may be able to provide you with opportunities or new connections in areas that you’re interested in. 

    Additional food for thought

    • Some students find it most helpful to talk to someone who’s about 5 years ahead of them in their career path. Talking to people further along in their careers - such as CEOs, directors, or senior manages - can be a great way to learn about the ins and outs of an industry. But sometimes, someone closer to your current position might be able to provide more time-relevant insights you might find useful (e.g. what the current labour market trend might look like in your field or tips on searching for an entry level role in that industry).

    • While informational interviews are great for learning about someone’s career journey and to gather insight and advice, they’re also an opportunity to share some of your own interests, skills, and experiences (nothing that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, of course). Remember that relationships are two-way streets, by sharing a little bit about yourself, you start to build a stronger relationship and will help them consider insights opportunities that they feel might be more tailored for you.

    • While informational interviews can sometimes feel like a great fact-finding mission, it’s important to remember that you’re talking to another human being. Always be considerate of their time and don’t ask any questions that you would be uncomfortable answering or be offended by if someone asked you.

    • Be polite and respectful when reaching out to a prospective new contact and try to offer up a couple different ways to meet if possible (e.g. Skype, Zoom, in-person, phone calls, etc.).



    About the Author:

    Calvin Chan is a career advisor at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Career Action. He’s also an EDI advocate and a scientific writer and communicator.

  • 9 Apr 2021 2:16 PM | Manager GPDN (Administrator)

    Universities are safe spaces where trainees can hone their management and leadership skills.

    Universities provide opportunities to develop management and leadership skills through research. Research programs can be compared to a small business: They raise capital (grants) and produce products (intellectual property). Like any small business owner, be it a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, a budding investigator starts as a technician with some special acumen. However, to grow their enterprise, they must learn management and they must learn leadership. In this context, Leadership is the ability to influence people to achieve a vision, while management is the ability to granularly coordinate said achievement.

    In the research setting, the investigator is the entrepreneur and leader that looks to the future. They are the imagination behind the program and the catalyst for direction. However, without the manager, there would be no planning, no order, no predictability and of course no research. Meanwhile, the technician is the doer working through tasks, one at a time. Because of competing concerns, drivers, and perspectives, there is tension in the system. This can be a problem for young investigators and the reason why research trainees should be exposed to the full complement of management and leadership training. 

    A young investigator needs to recognize the three competing personalities and to give them balance. One of the most common failures is the temptation to only do the technician role. Young investigators must resist this temptation and instead be prepared to be the visionary. They must also avoid the temptation to micromanage and have their hands in everything. By building trust and a clear communication of expectations, with some of the early hires, the lab will begin to run itself, leaving the professor time to not only grow their research program, but also take on the many other roles they will be expected to play inside the University. 

    Unfortunately, however, research is becoming more complex as it moves away from single-investigator (Mode 1) towards multi-stakeholder (Mode 2) driven research. In addition to investigators coming from different disciplines and institutions, funding sources may also be diverse with each partner bringing different expectations to program. A similar trend also occurs in industry, which has also moved towards product-focused, multi-disciplinary teams. In this model, members of different divisions (research, marketing, finance) bring different perspectives (and vocabularies) to the product development table. Companies can also include customers who commonly bring a pragmatic view to product development. Team members must value the perspectives each member brings to the team and communicate clearly without jargon. 

    Industry recognizes that management and leadership are learned through teamwork. Teamwork is a critical skill that they look for in new recruits. Recruiters will ask interviewees about their teamwork experience: how they may have helped to resolve a roadblock or a conflict within a team, for example. What they are fishing for with these questions is a picture of one’s emerging management and leadership skills. Within teams, management and leadership is often distributed meaning that individuals lead in activities toward a common set of goals. Some of these activities may be skills related, and roles may be decided upon specific acumen. However, others can be more related to team dynamics (facilitator, recorder, organizer, prodder, supporter, etc.). Each of these roles can be important to reach a point of cooperation and synergy that is expected of a team.  

    In raising questions about teamwork, recruiters are enquiring about other skills central to teamwork, such as effective communication and goal orientation, which are critical to the success of their organization. Industry feels that the employee’s ability to communicate, cooperate and work efficiently in diverse environments are critical skills needed to succeed in today’s fast paced corporate environment. Industry lives and breathes “mission critical projects”, which are projects that can make or break the company. Hence, they are only interested in individuals who understand the importance of working synergistically towards goal achievement.

    Figure illustrating that as individuals move from Masters to PhD to PDF roles, both leadership and management skills increase.

    Considering these new complexities, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows should seek opportunities to learn management and leadership skills. Both are part of a spectrum of training that reflects the basic hierarchy of a research program from technician to manager to leader. Through research, Masters students learn basic management skills including self management, project management, stakeholder management, etc. Further into their training and possibly transitioning into PhD, trainees begin to learn rudimentary leadership, through mentoring, negotiating, and collaboration. As PhD students are expected to work independently, project management is strengthen

    Universities represent a safe space where trainees can hone their management and leadership skills. There is no better time to experiment with developing these important skills. Many trainees are already sharing work with lab mates or are even collaborating with colleagues nearby or across the country. However, the structures of these teams are not formal, the roles are not defined, and the synergy is lacking. Why not suggest the idea of adding some structure around these collaborations for the sake of your training? Similarly, trainees should involve themselves in multidisciplinary projects and committee work. Finally, trainees should consider starting and leading an initiative that improves their university in some small way. Universities are often keen to support these initiatives and to help trainees to grow as managers and leaders. ed, while competitive intelligence and strategic planning begin to be learned and practised. Likewise, senior PhD students and postdocs become entrepreneurial, developing a vision for their own future research program. 


    About the Author:

    Derrick E. Rancourt is a professor in the Departments of Oncology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and Medical Genetics at the University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and Director of Alberta’s Provincial Genome Engineering Centre. Derrick also teaches biotechnology business and professional development in the Cumming School of Medicine and is a Director of the Alberta Council of Technologies.

  • 10 Mar 2021 1:14 PM | Manager GPDN (Administrator)

    As a department chair, I regularly get inquiries from PhD students about opportunities to teach a course in our program. This post is based on the information I give them. While talking about sessional teaching gets into the huge and important structural issue of contingent academic labour that is too complex to address here, I do have some advice on seeking opportunities to teach a course for the first time.

    First, understand the value of teaching experience. PhD students are understandably very interested in having experience as a course instructor to increase their competitiveness for academic jobs. This is wise, though be aware that peer-reviewed publications are still the primary coin of the realm, so do not overstate this value in your thinking. But teaching experience can also have value for non-academic jobs, as it builds those ‘transferable skills’ everyone talks about – organizing and managing complex processes, resolving disputes and problems, and so forth.  

    Second, do not underestimate the time and energy cost of that experience. Even experienced TAs may be overwhelmed at the demands of being a course instructor for the first time. I advise prospective instructors that teaching pays about 50% more than a teaching assistantship at our university, but is 200% more work. Teaching a course will take up nearly all your time –  time that could be invested in dissertation progress, preparing publications, and other professional and personal goals. These demands can seriously derail momentum toward your longer-term objectives, and so teaching too early is often not in your overall interest.

    Third, make sure to learn the local context, particularly relevant collective agreements and other policies and practices. Most contract instructors in Canada are unionized but each collective agreement will be different in language, procedures, deadlines and so on, as will university procedures and practices. Don’t rely on rumour or friends’ experiences elsewhere. Consult the key players – union offices, department chairs and administrators, and others whose job it is to know and follow the local rules. For example, under the Carleton collective agreement, summer instructor positions must be advertised by December 15, and I often have to tell people making initial inquiries in January and February that they are too late. 

    Fourth and immediately following the above, understand as much as possible how hiring decisions are made. In a unionized environment seniority will almost always be critical, but with variations. For example, some collective agreements may require first offering courses without advertisement to the most senior person who has taught them before; others will require advertising all courses even if there are one or more likely candidates with seniority. And while transparency is generally desirable, each hiring (and hiring offer) is an individual and confidential personnel decision. 

    Finally, do not teach alone. By this, I mean to seek as much advice, mentoring, and support as possible, especially for dealing with sticky student issues. Your support environment will vary and some instructors seem to be inexcusably thrown into the deep end and left to sink or swim. But in most cases the department and others are there to advise and assist you, especially since it’s in their interest to have a well-run course. Ask; don’t assume you have to solve everything yourself.

    Make no mistake – teaching is rewarding! But ensure that you understand the complexities of what it involves, and how it fits into your own interests, circumstances, and aspirations. 


    About the Authors:

    Jonathan Malloy is chair of the Department of Political Science at Carleton University and co-author with Loleen Berdahl of the bookWork Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, summer 2018).

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