Never Take These Skills for Granted

Jovana Milosavljevic Ardeljan explains why higher ed institutions should provide communications support programs and why graduate students and postdocs should seek them out.

February 8, 2021
 
 
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I attended my first-ever writing boot camp while writing my master's thesis, and I fell in love. I adored the reserved time and space (plus the food and coffee!) for students to work on their academic projects, from data analysis to dissertations, and I was grateful to my graduate school for bringing us together. In fact, when the weeklong program ended, I felt like I had fallen off a cliff: my perfectly organized and productive time was gone, and I needed more support.

So I scheduled an appointment with my graduate school dean and offered to organize a twice-weekly writing group for graduate students. She appreciated the initiative and helped me set it up. In the next five years, I completed my Ph.D. in education -- my research focused on graduate student communication support -- and coordinated the growth of our programs for graduate student communication skills development. We have expanded the number of writing programs we offer from one to 11 in the past five years. And in my current role as coordinator, I see every day the difference these programs make in the lives of graduate students.

In addition to organizing and running professional development and communication support programs, I often meet individually with students. The most common concerns I hear include difficulty making progress with their writing, preparing for diverse careers, and navigating graduate school and its common toll on mental health and overall well-being. Based on observations from my five years of experience of working with graduate students, I offer advice to my professional peers on why graduate schools should provide communication support to graduate students, and why we should encourage our graduate students and postdocs to take advantage of such opportunities. And if you are a grad student or postdoc yourself, I hope this essay will encourage you to seek out communication support on your own campus.

Career development and diversification. Graduate programs have traditionally prepared doctoral students for careers in one of three settings: a higher education institution, a research center or a foundation. Requirements for those career venues align well with the training graduate programs provide, in terms of both content knowledge and skills for communicating to audiences in those three settings.

But what is missing is preparation for career paths in business/industry, government and nonprofit agencies. Traditional graduate training does not prepare graduate students well for such careers, and those who work in graduate career education recognize the changing landscape of successful graduate career pathways.

Most important, we don’t teach graduate students how to communicate to audiences beyond their adviser, their disciplinary cohort or the wider academic community. There are several explanations. One is the assumption that graduate students have -- or rather an expectation that they should have -- well-developed communication skills already. Second, no one seems to think it is their responsibility to teach graduate students how to write or speak to diverse audiences.

Finally, much of the graduate curriculum and adviser mentoring is geared toward preparing graduate students for academe, which, unfortunately, is not an option for many reasons. There certainly aren’t enough academic jobs, and not every graduate student is interested in staying in academe. By learning to communicate to diverse stakeholders the value and purpose of their work, graduate students and postdocs are better prepared to pursue a wider range of careers.

So what do we do about this? Graduate schools and professional development offices have been creating programs to help graduate students strengthen their communication skills. At my institution, we now offer programs such as Three Minute Thesis, communication across disciplines, science communication and public outreach. Those programs challenge students to explain why their work matters to general audience. Through this process, they often realize how their work can be applied in different areas, which opens new career horizons.

Time to degree. Many doctoral students get stuck at the A.B.D. (all-but-dissertation) stage; unfortunately, many give up at this point. The Council of Graduate Schools’ 2008 PhD Completion Project showed that almost 60 percent of students graduate within 10 years, while around 30 percent drop out, and those statistics have remained steady. Students clearly have an ongoing need for support in order to keep moving forward in their degrees, especially when the remaining work is mostly writing.

Both writing retreats and shorter programs focused on tasks like writing literature reviews or writing for publication help students progress faster, reducing the time to degree and increasing the chances they will actually finish. Students at my institution consistently report that writing retreats and other writing support enable them to get much more work done than they would have on their own. Interviews I conducted with students at a different large public research university show that graduate students there find writing support equally valuable, and an important factor in staying on track writing and finishing their projects.

Community and mental health. Graduate school can take a toll on work-life balance and mental health. A 2018 international study of graduate students showed that “41 percent of respondents showed moderate to severe anxiety and 39 percent moderate to severe depression, both of which are more than six times the prevalence found in studies of the general population.” There is a strong indication that mental health issues are closely related to a strong sense of isolation in graduate school.

I studied four years of data from participants in communication support programs at my institution and found that the two things students value most -- apart from getting their work done -- are community building and indirect mental health support. Indeed, community building through communication support programs can help alleviate the pressure of mental health issues. Many communication support programs, especially those centered on writing, involve large cohorts of students who have an opportunity to work with their peers over an extended time. That fosters a sense of community that often carries through and encourages students to get to the finish line.

Despite being entirely online, my institution’s seventh annual Winter Writing Retreat had more than 60 participants. Students long for community and connection, whether in person or via Zoom. In their feedback about the retreat, students have emphasized the importance of shared experience and the opportunity to connect with others. Many students have confessed that hearing from others that they, too, find graduate school difficult helps a lot in coping with their own struggles.

Faculty support in student training. Some advisers and professors dedicate time to helping their students develop a broad communication skill set, and some of them help their students explore the many career options available to graduate students. But many don’t. Many would like to do it but simply don’t know how or lack wide-ranging knowledge. Making communication support available, either on the department or graduate school/university level, takes some of the work of this advising and support off faculty shoulders. It can save faculty time that they would otherwise invest in providing extensive feedback or, in some cases, major revisions of their students’ writing.

People in academe can too easily take communication skills for granted. They may consider them less important than research and scholarship, or perceived them as unattainable for those not born with this talent. Communication skills are often associated as a thing for English majors, but the truth is that these skills are integral to everyone’s work, in all disciplines. Investing in developing communication skills is beneficial for graduate students and postdocs because it enables them to articulate the value and importance of their work to different stakeholders, it helps demystify the dissertation/thesis process, and, finally, it creates space for building a supportive community. From the perspective of graduate school and other institutional staff who are often the organizers and providers of communication support, writing and oral communication programs are essential investments in student retention and completion.

Bio

Jovana Milosavljevic Ardeljan is a coordinator for professional development and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. She does research on communication skill development for graduate students and postdocs that supports their career diversification pathways. Her research is informed by her work in the Graduate School of the University of New Hampshire, where she is responsible for developing and delivering graduate student professional development programs.

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