Preparing Graduate Students for a Changing World of Work

By Megan Burnett, Assistant Director, CTSI/TATP

If you are a graduate student, or know a graduate student, these questions may have come up in conversation:

  • Will I get an academic position once I finish my degree?
  • What kind of position will I be able to obtain?
  • What can I do now during my graduate program to be more successful on the job market?

In my role as Assistant Director with CTSI and TATP, I interact with graduate students every day who are seeking clarity around these questions. In fact, for the past few years these questions have been driving a broader conversation in Canada around the purpose and focus of graduate education, including graduate student professional development. (Boman, 2013; Bilodeau, 2007; Rose, 2012) What, exactly, are we preparing our graduate students to do? How are we enabling their success when they leave graduate school? What can they expect when they exit their degree?

With these questions in mind, CTSI hosted an international SSHRC-funded conference back in May 2011 on graduate student professional development. The conference addressed four possible pathways to personal development within a graduate student’s degree program: professional, academic, teaching, and holistic (or, PATH). The goal was to highlight programming, courses, learning supports and networks at institutions from across North America that seek to prepare graduate students for the changing labour landscape by providing a broader range of skill development – not just a focus on disciplinary research expertise.

The PATH conference demonstrated the need for a deeper discussion of the purpose of graduate education and a re-definition of what success both during and after graduate school might entail. Building on the conversations started at the PATH conference, I recently worked with colleagues here in CTSI to further this debate (Professor Carol Rolheiser, Bethany Osborne, Sara Carpenter). In collaboration with another colleague at the University of Victoria we co-edited a Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education (Volume 44, No. 3, 2014). Drawing on studies or projects discussed at the PATH conference, and incorporating new research and new initiatives related to graduate student development, the issue highlights emerging trends in graduate student development and explores successful strategies that could point the way to a re-thinking of graduate education.

The issue includes:

  • a scan of graduate student teaching certificate programs across Canada,
  • a case study of a graduate student professional skills program at a major university in Quebec,
  • an examination of the impact of service learning in a graduate level course at a research-intensive university,
  • a discourse analysis of how Canadian institutions and media talk about teaching in higher education,
  • an examination of how a graduate student teaching development program can foster intercultural competence, and
  • a critique of the debate around graduate student competencies that focus on “transferable skills”.

Together, the six papers reinforce the notion that the changing landscape within academia and for graduate student employment following graduation, necessitates a reform in the way that graduate students are prepared for the labour market and a shift in the perception both within and outside the academy, of what success after gradu­ate school would look like. (Osborne, Carpenter, Burnett, Rolheiser & Korpan, 2014)

This latest issue of the CJHE emphasizes that we are at a pivotal point in Canadian graduate education. The questions that graduate students ask themselves and that others are starting to raise about the graduate student experience should stimulate an examination of our own support of University of Toronto graduate students. Given the success of our Graduate Professional Skills program (coordinated by the School of Graduate Studies) and the development of the co-curricular record for graduate students, and in light of the expansion in graduate education currently being experienced across Ontario and in many U of T units…what do we want from our graduate education programs and from our graduates? What is the world we are preparing them for, and how can we give them the tools to make that world better? What is the role of teaching development programs, leadership programs, research skills programs, community-based or service learning curricula, writing programs, etc. in preparing graduate students for a changing world of work?


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Boman, J. S. (2013). Graduate student teaching development: Evaluating the effectiveness of training in relation to graduate student characteristics. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 43(1), 100–114.

Bilodeau, P. (2007). Professional skills development: From ideas to action. Ottawa, ON: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Osborne, B., Carpenter, S., Burnett, M., Rolheiser, C., Korpan, C. (2014) Preparing graduate students for a changing world of work: Editors’ introduction. Canadian Journal of Higher Education. 44(3), i–ix.

Rose, M. (2012). Graduate student professional development: A survey with recommendations. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Association for Graduate Studies.

Schönwetter, D., & Ellis, D. (2011). Taking stock: Contemplating North American graduate student professional development programs and developers. In J. E. Miller & J. E. Groccia (Eds.), To improve the academy: Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development, Volume 29(pp. 3–17). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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