The transition from undergraduate to graduate work usually requires students to reassess their academic abilities and their knowledge of how a discipline operates. Completing an undergraduate major in Sociology or Chemistry, for example, is much different from receiving training in what makes a good professor, sociologist, or chemist. Training in advanced research is often covered in a special course at the graduate level, but is only one of the many competencies graduate students need in order to become professionals. Presentation skills, writing skills, teamwork skills—all these and more are required to be successful and all become more discipline specific as students work their way through graduate school.
Graduate students who serve as teaching assistants usually must also learn a new set of skills, including how to lecture and explain clearly, run labs or discussions, and grade exams or papers. Proper training in these areas is essential, both to make sure that undergraduates are learning well, but also to develop the professional skills graduate students need. Even graduate students not intending on academic careers should recognize that good communication and group management skills are highly prized on the job market, and teaching experience is a good way of demonstrating mastery of those skills.
On campus there are several excellent examples of discipline-specific training programs for graduate students. In physics, Geoffrey Summers, chair of the department, is teaching a course called Professional Skills in Physics (PHYS690), which covers topics not formally discussed in regular classes, such as how to prepare and present an oral research paper and how to write a research proposal. First taught in 1993, the course has evolved to include other topics such as electronic library resources and how to teach physics.
Students write papers, make 20-minute research presentations (which other members of the class critique) and finally write a ten-page research proposal including a budget justification. According to Summers, “Graduates who have come back to visit the department have remarked how useful the information they learned in the course has been. One graduate even went so far as to say in retrospect that it was the most useful course he had taken (though this might have been a little exaggerated). However, I think the course has evolved into something that gives a glimpse to the students of another aspect of becoming a physicist that they might not have previously thought about.”
In psychology, Zoe Warwick developed and taught PSYC696: Seminar in Graduate Teaching of Psychology in 1998 and plans to offer it again in 2002. In it students cover topics ranging from how to lead a discussion or prepare a lecture to how to motivate students and evaluate their learning. Not only do graduate students develop syllabi for courses and compose a philosophy of teaching statement, but they must also present a short lecture that is videotaped and critiqued. Warwick says that the course was very well received both by the graduate students and by her colleagues.
For departments interested in seeing what other institutions are doing to help train graduate students, there are a variety of resources available. Re-envisioning the Ph.D.: Promising Practices in Doctoral Education offers links to hundreds of sites that cover a variety of issues in graduate education, including the mentoring of graduate students, their professional development, and their preparation for teaching. More specifically oriented to future academic careers is a site sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the AAC& U, Preparing Future Faculty. Building on the ideas in his excellent book Tomorrow’s Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, Richard M. Reis manages a listserv and website with many useful articles. The AAHE’s Preparing Graduate Students to Teach: A Guide to Programs That Improve Undergraduate Education and Develop Tomorrow’s Faculty (edited by Leo M. Lambert and Stacy Lane Tice) is available in the Faculty Development Center’s library.