New Program Helps With Professional Development

by Mark Sincell
United States
Science's Next Wave
7 January 2000

Aristotle believed that scholars shoulder a dual burden: They must strive to understand their specific discipline and also be skilled at communicating their knowledge to the public. Otherwise, instead of enriching society, the fruits of their labor will wither like unharvested grapes. But University of Texas (UT), Austin, communication professor and associate dean Rick Cherwitz thinks the modern graduate school is producing a different kind of scholar: exceptionally skilled in their discipline and yet uncertain how to communicate their ideas and apprehensive about applying their knowledge to the problems of the outside world.

To address this problem, Cherwitz, in collaboration with JoyLynn Reed, communication lecturer and teaching assistant program coordinator in the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, created the UT Graduate School Professional Development Program to train the next generation of citizen-scholars. Now in its second year, this unique program teaches graduate students a variety of professional skills--ranging from preparing an effective conference talk to budgeting an independent consulting business--that will help them in any career they choose, either inside or outside the Ivory Tower. "This is not about alternative careers," Cherwitz tells Next Wave, "it is about being professional and having options."

Students are clamoring to get in. Over 1000 students from 83 different disciplines attempted to register for last year's 650 first-come-first-served places. "The response has been more positive than I ever dreamed," says Reed. "I teach two classes per semester with class limits of 20 to 25 and they both have waiting lists."

The Texas program consists of 13 semester-long full-credit courses covering presentation skills, professional writing, independent consulting, teaching methods, technology, and ethics. There are also three courses specifically for international students that deal with the culture of American academic and professional communication, teaching, and writing. The courses are open to all graduate students and they may take as many as they like, "but most students take only the one or two that most interest them," says Reed.

The courses are very demanding but worth every bit of the effort, said several graduate students contacted by Next Wave. Students in the professional communication class give several videotaped talks based on their work. "Then we have to transcribe our own videotape," says chemistry graduate student Julie Teetsov. "It was excruciating, but after that I was very well prepared for my first international conference."

"I was really pushed to think about my teaching philosophy and to articulate it," says anthropologist Wendy Erisman, a former UT graduate student who took a class in teaching methods. In the process, Erisman discovered a deep love of teaching to draw upon in her work at St. Edward's University in Austin and Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

But the real showstopper is the class on independent consulting taught by Reed, who has operated a fitness franchise and still consults on the side. When Reed tells her consulting students that Ph.D.s can clear $100,000 in a year, "there aren't any big reactions from the class," she says, "but you can see they are doing a lot of serious thinking." Although the cash gets people's attention, graduate student Michael Erard is quick to point out that "it wasn't just a money-fest. We also discussed conflict resolution, different business entities, and taxes." And in the end, "some students see that they don't want to be in business after all," says Reed.

But not all is rosy however with the Professional Development Program. Despite good reviews from current students, only a small fraction of UT's graduate student population are signing up for it. One problem may be lack of promotion. Even though flyers are circulating and it's advertised on the Graduate School Web site, most graduate students at UT don't know the program exists. "They are not well advertised," says chemistry graduate student Delony Langer, "it is mostly word of mouth." "I only learned about it through my participation in the Graduate Student Association," agrees astronomer Luke Keller, now a research associate at Cornell University.

Part of the problem is the unwillingness of individual departments to encourage students to take the courses. "It is hard to spread the word if the departments don't help," says Erisman, "and my department didn't have a clue." Even the students who do know about the program are sometimes reluctant to enroll. "It is my understanding that these courses are excellent and it is definitely my loss for not being allowed to participate," one graduate student told Next Wave, "but I doubt that my dissertation committee would have been pleased if I did something outside of the laboratory."

Cherwitz, Reed, and UT vice president and graduate dean Terry Sullivan are now working hard to persuade other department heads that the courses are worth the small time expenditure. "What we are beginning to do is set up meetings with the faculty in various departments to discuss (face-to-face) what we are doing and answer questions," explains Cherwitz.

But if they do persuade departments to support professional development for graduate students, won't that add students to already overcrowded classes? Possibly, says Cherwitz, although he has no plans to expand the Graduate School offerings in the immediate future.

Instead, Cherwitz hopes that the program's success will inspire departments to take on more of the responsibility for training their own students. "Professional development must be brought home and seen as a 'connected' and essential part of graduate education--which can happen only if responsibility is shared among the central administration and local units," says Cherwitz.