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U of T initiatives focus on unique experience of graduate students

photo of students studying in library

(photo by Ken Jones)

Graduate students face distinct challenges in pursuing their degrees and in transitioning from being a student to whatever comes next.

Long hours spent deep diving into research in labs, in libraries and in the field and then writing up their findings is an isolating experience for many. And it can be difficult to recognize and explain your skills and experience when job hunting outside of a university setting.

To help its graduate students succeed, the University of Toronto is increasingly focusing on their unique needs, from providing specialized career and mental health services to updating the supervisory best practices handbook to capture the student point of view.

Having programs directed expressly at their needs is “empowering” graduate students, says Andrea Constantinof, who is in her second year of doctoral study in physiology and serves as an academic and funding commissioner with the Graduate Student Union.

“It’s giving them the tools to communicate with their supervisors and gain confidence to apply for jobs both within and outside academia,” she says.

Locke Rowe, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice-provost of graduate research and education, calls these changes an important “reorientation” of the school toward the graduate student experience and program innovation based largely on student feedback.

“Being a graduate student is a different lifestyle,” he explains. “It is isolating in many ways. You often have a single point of contact — a supervisor or a small advisory committee. And graduate students told us they wanted graduate student-focused services. We have listened.”

A desire for greater transparency has also led the university to post graduate funding information and average degree completion times for all departments online. This summer, it’s conducting the first-ever survey of 10,000 U of T PhD alumni to find out where they wound up after graduating.

The university intends to use the study’s findings to determine best practices to help students meet milestones on their pathway towards doctoral completion and in transitioning to their new careers after graduating, perhaps even enlisting the support of alumni to provide guidance and mentorship to current students.

Over the last two years, the School of Graduate Studies has worked collaboratively with the Graduate Student Union to put more graduate-focused services in place.

On the health side of this equation, the university has made big strides in recognizing the mental health challenges that may arise over the years it takes to finish a graduate degree. The School of Graduate Studies now has an embedded counsellor and offers a series of mental health workshops directed specifically toward its students.

The Graduate Conflict Resolution Centre also offers students the ability to talk confidentially with trained grad-to-grad peer advisors about conflicts with their supervisor or roommates, financial difficulties and how best to prepare an academic appeal.

Graduate professional development is another area of intense activity at the school.

Workshops on resume building are of particular interest to Constantinof, who may pursue an alternative career capitalizing on her interests in entrepreneurship, coding and pharmacology.

It’s all about “learning how to market the skills that you have to make you more competitive when applying for jobs,” she says. “How do you stand out from the other PhDs?”

The Graduate Professional Skills (GPS) program is designed to help prepare students like Constantinof for their future in academia and beyond. It focuses on skills not typically learned within graduate programs but that can be critical to a whole range of careers. GPS, with some 100 offerings, is growing rapidly. One new initiative is the SGS Summer Institute, an intensive one-month program focusing on leadership and professional development.

“We need to do a better job to help our graduate students see all of the options that are available to them and prepare them now — not when they’re in the final throes of defending their dissertation,” Rowe says. “Our students have a tremendous amount to offer and we want to help them see all of the skills they can bring to whatever career they choose.”

Read about the increase in funding for doctoral-stream students in the Faculty of Arts & Science