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Steve Matson, Dean
Steve Matson, Dean

When I was a graduate student, I don’t think I ever heard the term “professional development.” Today, we use this term frequently to refer to an evolving skill set that we believe better prepares our students for careers both inside and outside of the academy. Many of us believe it is a critical component of today’s graduate education. What has changed, and why?

In the years after World War II, colleges and universities were expanding their student populations in response to the GI Bill, and subsequently, the Higher Education Act of 1965. Faculty positions were available and, in many cases, plentiful as the number of students seeking bachelor’s and advanced degrees grew. Doctoral students were trained primarily for careers in the academy and professional development took place in the laboratory, in the classroom, in small seminars and within the domain of the discipline. In other words, accomplished faculty trained new faculty in the way they were trained. This successful training secured the continuity of outstanding faculty members.

Today, the majority of our graduate students will contribute their knowledge and skills to society through a variety of demanding positions beyond the academy. We are placing graduates of doctoral and research master’s programs in industry, in government, in nonprofits, in entrepreneurial ventures and as faculty. A recent report indicates that four out of five students from the biomedical sciences are taking positions outside academia.

There are many reasons for this shift in career trajectory. As widely reported, we are preparing more doctoral students each year than there are faculty positions available to accommodate them. However, and more importantly, the times have changed. Our complex society requires master’s- and Ph.D.-trained workers in a much wider range of careers. The critical thinking, problem solving and research skills that are developed in graduate school are just what is needed to tackle the multifaceted problems in technology-related businesses, in education, in government and in social programs and policy development. Our students are answering the call. They are successfully seeking a range of careers in which to apply their skills. The low unemployment rate for those with master’s and doctoral degrees bears this out.

While some may see this as a crisis in graduate education, I see this as both a natural evolution of higher education and an opportunity. We have learned that graduate education should include a broader range of skills and abilities so that our graduate students can be truly prepared for and effective in the wide variety of demands made on them throughout their careers. This has resulted in calls from industry, professional organizations, alumni and our students for better alignment between the skills students develop in graduate school and the careers they subsequently pursue. The result is an increased emphasis on professional development that prepares graduates for unprecedented career opportunities of the future.

The Graduate School at Carolina embraced this change over a decade ago. Beginning with an extensive survey of our students, we developed a collection of professional development offerings available to all students.

Focused on developing competencies in communication, academic development, leadership, professionalism and career development, this assortment of workshops and courses provides students with the professional development skill set needed to succeed in any post-graduate career. They are intended to complement and extend the robust discipline-specific professional development provided by our faculty.

The recent addition of Professional Science Master’s degrees has supplemented and added to the professional development opportunities available to our students. Enrollment in courses designed for these professional degrees has been extended to our doctoral and research master’s students, and they are finding them to be valuable additions to their graduate training (see article on PSM degrees). This has encouraged us to develop a graduate certificate in business fundamentals to include modules in communication, project management, leadership and financial accounting – areas not traditionally represented in a graduate curriculum.

In this edition of the Carolina Chronicle, we are sharing stories on efforts being made across campus and within The Graduate School to provide innovative professional development for all of our students. If you have a story you would like to share regarding your own professional development or something you wish you had while in graduate school, please send us a note. We are interested in hearing from our alumni and in expanding the offerings available for today’s graduate students.

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