Doctoral Students Fill the Skills Gap By Taking Courses in Graduate Professional Studies: Innovative Partnership between GSAS, the Rabb School, and the Mandel Center for the Humanities
March 14, 2022
This article is the third in a series that will focus on efforts within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) to promote diverse career pathways to our students. Please visit the Professional Development section of our website to learn more about upcoming seminars, workshops, opportunities to connect with our career counselors, and online career resources.
“Graduate students want and need to build a variety of skills that will help them meet their professional aspirations, which can feel daunting as our plates are often already full,” says Moriah King, a PhD student in anthropology. But how big is the skills gap between doctoral and professional training? It may not be as wide as one would expect, at least that is what King and other GSAS students discovered recently while participating in a pilot program that places them in classes at The Rabb School for Continuing Education. The program was sponsored by GSAS and the Mandel Center for the Humanities.
The Rabb School’s Graduate Professional Studies (GPS) division offers a range of professionally-oriented degrees, and the doctoral students who pursued these courses found that this type of learning filled gaps in their existing academic training and helped identify transferable skills that they had already developed. Eight doctoral students in the Humanities and Humanistic Social Sciences took courses during the Fall semester of 2021, taking one of three online courses: Cognitive and Social Psychology of User-Centered Design, Principles of Learning Experience Design, and Writing for Digital Environments.
“The information alone that I learned from the course was invaluable, but what was perhaps even more exciting for me was discovering that the skills I have honed throughout my PhD program actually are transferable.” says Carissa Wilbanks, a doctoral student in the English department, who took Writing for Digital Environments. “It’s one thing to hear that said, but it’s quite another to experience it for yourself.” King took the same course, and agrees, stating, “The most interesting part of my experience in the class was seeing the connections between what I am learning as a doctoral student in anthropology and the skills needed to plan, execute, and produce a variety of writing projects.”
Writing for Digital Environments teaches students the ins and outs of writing good copy for a variety of different digital formats. Students learned how to develop a unique voice and style for organizations, prepare style guides, the importance of a “you”-oriented writing style, and how user-generated content has rapidly become a crucial component of digital marketing strategies. The course prompted Wilbanks to consider new career pathways. “I’m currently researching UX (user experience) writing and even plan on applying to internships in the field,” she says. “I look forward to seeing where this new trajectory will bring me once I complete my dissertation.” King feels similarly, noting that “the synergy and usefulness of research and storytelling in the writing process outside of academia was encouraging and has given me a language to use as I apply for internships and other paid positions.”
One of the unexpected benefits of the GPS courses was collaborating with learners in a wide array of careers. Anik Chartrand, a doctoral student in English, also took Writing for Digital Environments, and she agrees that it enabled her to learn about the multiple career options potentially available to her, both formally and informally. “The discussions and interactions I had with my classmates were invaluable to my future career opportunities and I am deeply fortunate to have been able to learn from them and my instructor this past semester,” she says. Some of the careers Chartrand discovered included copyright editor, marketing executive, “and any job in between that needed strong writing skills that could reach multiple audiences.” She plans to continue looking into these fields, as “the course made me recognize that I am good at and interested in writing content marketing pieces.”
Changhong Zhang, a doctoral student in anthropology, took The Cognitive and Social Psychology of User-Centered Design, a course that is designed to investigate how psychological and social principles play important roles in influencing human decision making in both physical and digital environments. Students practiced some universal design principles impacting usability, accessibility and inclusion. Later in the course, students collaborated in a group project to design a workspace that considers how drastically the COVID pandemic has impacted office workers. “This turned out to be a good exercise for us to see things from a different angle,” says Zhang. “We were not simply analyzing anymore; we became designers who have an eye for user experience in terms of cognitive, social, physiological and psychological factors.” This course has given Zhang “a fresh eye, which hopefully will help me expand and deepen my research scope in the future.”
Yi He and Olivia Bowins, doctoral students in English and History, took Principles of Learning Experience Design. The course emphasized the importance of creating human-centered, digital course designs that foster greater experiences for learners. “I have learned to question some of the teaching paradigms I have inherited and to prioritize the learner in learning design; checking one’s own instructional biases and preferences in favor of students’ needs plays an important role in creating productive learning ecosystems,” says Bowins. Like others taking courses at GPS, He benefited from working with a group of industry insiders, which included, “an educational technologist, a marketing consultant, and a trainer at a hospital department.” These diverse perspectives gave her an opportunity to develop an approach to learning, “that I couldn’t have gained just in academia.”
Overall, nearly every student who participated in the program found value in the GPS classes that they pursued. King summed up the experience by saying, “The partnership between GSAS and Rabb gives graduate students an opportunity and a space to confirm, change, and explore the connections between their interests, skills, and ever-changing career goals.”