Plain English 101: Professional Development Program Aims to Improve Communication Skills and Job Opportunities

by Peter Partheymuller

January/February 2000

Professional development is many things to many people. To Rick Cherwitz, an associate dean of graduate studies, it involves courses on how a grad student can begin to explain a narrowly focused specialty to the uninitiated.

Since summer 1997, the College of Graduate Studies has offered for-credit classes designed to help students communicate outside their exclusive set and to increase marketability when looking for jobs. The Professional Development Program now offers 13 separate classes (two in fall 1999) and six periodic workshops. More than 650 students from 83 PhD programs have taken advantage of the opportunity.

"We do a really good job at universities like this in teaching research skills," says Cherwitz, "but we're not always very good at teaching the things that are assumed to be learned by osmosis--how you utilize this expertise, what are the audiences to whom you might contribute this expertise," etc.

Cherwitz says that in the early `80s he was teaching an undergraduate communication class and was approached by a few professors who thought their own grad students might benefit from such a class; the students just were not proficient at getting their points across to those outside their area of study. Then, when he eventually moved into the Office of the Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies, he began to hear more of the same from the students themselves. He approached the provost for money to create these classes in a sort of pilot stage for two summer sessions. The response, from faculty members and students alike, was so positive that the program became official and full-time last fall."The one thing the students keep telling us," says Cherwitz, "is that it's not just going to help them get jobs or be better grantwriters, but that this is what universities are about -- being able to sit in a class with a scientist, an artist, and a historian and to talk about knowledge, how you write about it, and how you bring perspectives together in an interdisciplinary sense."

While the bulk of the program consists of fairly standard academic areas like rhetoric, teaching methods, and "multicultural issues," the class that most excites and animates Cherwitz is "Academic and Professional Consulting," which was offered for the first time last fall. "It has really become the metaphor for the program," he says, explaining that it has "opened doors" for students worried about the paucity of academic jobs. Doctoral students already know their value to their respective fields, he says. "What we want you to figure out in this class is, what's the value of your expertise to other audiences? Where else can you go and make a contribution?"

Students are responding in kind. Cherwitz regularly refers to listserves to keep apace with the ongoing conversation, and he says, "They now understand that their expertise is significant to more than a handful of two or three scholars who publish in certain journals and read the research, that there are people in the community, people in government, people in non-profit organizations for whom their expertise matters."

Though a few faculty members have voiced reservations about the program (regarding the image that the University is pushing students away from careers in academia or time spent away from the labs and archives where research takes place), Cherwitz maintains that the Professional Development Program and the usual doctoral research are all of a piece. Though it is too early now to get accurate results, Cherwitz wants to survey graduates in a few years to see the results of the program. He expects to find that the concerns of the dissenting voices are unfounded. "What I hope to document is that their time-to-degree is less because they are able to do some of the things the faculty asks them to do precisely because of these courses."

In the end, the program seems to be about broadening horizons in a field that has always come under fire for being too insulated. "We have a tendency sometimes," Cherwitz says, "to do our jobs so well as academics that we limit the students -- tell them, `Be careful with your knowledge. Don't say more than what you know.' And I think that when students get out, they tend to think their value is limited. This program is saying that your value is not limited."

-Peter Partheymuller