#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · day in the life · translation · writing

Seeing the Links: Transferring Skills between Work and Research

I do a lot of different things at work, mostly because despite all of the moaning about the explosion of administrators, there really aren’t enough people in our office to go around. It’s also a little because I’m not your average Research Officer. Many of you have probably worked with someone in my role at your university, especially if you’re a faculty member putting in a grant application. The other Research Officers at my university focus mostly on that–helping faculty prepare grant applications and then administering the grants post-award. Because I work with graduate students and not faculty (and there are far more students than there are faculty), I end up being a bit of a jill of all trades. I manage our graduate scholarship competitions, oversee research requiring ethics approval or an intellectual property agreement, coordinate our graduate professional skills program, run research-based competitions (like the Three Minute Thesis), and develop applications for grants and fellowships like the Banting postdoc. My job is often a bit harrying, but it’s endlessly interesting, and it’s always rewarding to feel like I’m useful and valued.

I genuinely enjoy almost all of the parts of my job (some of them in smaller doses than others, like wrangling schedules to get a dozen faculty members in a room to adjudicate scholarships), and I’m good at all of them. But I’ve discovered over the last year that I especially love, and am especially good at, developing fellowship and grant applications. What “development” means changes depending on the application, but it can mean anything from copyediting to substantive editing to writing whole sections of the application (like all of the institutional documents for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship). Because I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of scholarship and grant applications (I have to review every SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR application that comes through our university, and that’s quite a lot of them with 6, 000 graduate students), I’ve become–almost by osmosis–really good at knowing what a winning application looks like. I’ve become even more fluent in the genre of grant writing than I was as a grad student. I’ve also become good at helping people get past their own lack of fluency in the genre of grant writing, and their inability to translate what they’re doing in their research into words on a page. I love that part of it, because it means that I get to work closely with brilliant people who just need a little help to figure out how to write about their research and its importance in ways that are clear and compelling to other people. And I love it because it means I get to write, and feel confident while I’m doing it. I know what I’m doing, I’m good at it, and I get heaps o’ praise for doing it well.


It’s quite the sea change from my life as an academic writer.


I’ve been writing essays and articles for going on twenty years now. It seems like writing about my own research should feel effortless by this point, given how much practice I’ve had doing it and how well I know the subjects about which I write. Instead, it’s sometimes the complete opposite. Writing about my own research can feel like pulling teeth, while writing about other people’s research just feels fun. It’s much more difficult to get into the flow state while I’m doing writing for myself, and it’s even rarer that I get praised for what I’ve written. Or rather, I should say, it was. I don’t have a lot of time for writing these days, other than snatched moments at 5:30 am, but it tends to go well when I do. It wasn’t until recently that this mental disconnect, between my work writing and my research writing, and the changes that my work writing were inspiring in my research writing, became obvious to me.


It’s clear to me that I’m good at the writing I do at work because of my long experience with academic writing. We don’t talk about it as much as we could, but graduate students are becoming ever more aware of the ways that the skills they develop during their degrees can be transferred into future jobs, in whatever field, just the way mine have done. But why shouldn’t it, and couldn’t it, work the other way around? Despite the fact that my job is, from the perspective of many, a distraction from the academic work that I should be doing, it has worked that way. The non-academic, high-volume, to-deadline, highly communicative writing I do every day at work takes skill, and that skill is transferring into my academic writing. I write faster. I write more clearly. I don’t agonize over word placement and the perfect turn of phrase, because I’ve gotten out of the habit in a work environment where I just don’t have time to. And I’m sure that the confidence in my writing ability I’ve developed at work, bolstered by the positive feedback I get from those I write to and for, has done wonders for my confidence as an academic writer.


The idea of the shadow C.V., of taking on outside work before or during the PhD to gain some breadth of work experience in anticipation of looking for non-academic employment, has been around for awhile. But the major criticism of doing this other work is that it takes students away from their degrees, forces them to do multiple things instead of the one thing that they should be doing. It also insinuates, as does most rhetoric about hobbies and non-academic work in academe, that doing anything other than pure academic work will make you a bad academic. I don’t disagree that time is certainly an issue there, as it is for me in trying to finish a dissertation with a full time job. But just as I’m increasingly wary about the artificial divide between academic, alt-ac and post-ac jobs (isn’t a job just a job?), I’m also increasingly wary about the idea of non-academic work only being useful in non-academic contexts, and I’m calling foul on the idea of non-academic work making people lesser scholars. Just as the skills and expertise I developed in grad school got me my job and made me good at it, the skills and expertise I’m developing as a Research Officer are making me better at my research. Which is as it should be, no? So can we stop disparaging academics who have interests or do work outside of academe, stop denigrating non-academic work as a distraction from (or to the detriment of) “pure” academic work? Skills are skills, inside or outside of the academy, and honing them one place only sharpens them for use in the other. I’m only surprised that it took me so long to figure out that the river runs both ways.
#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic reorganization · translation

On the Skills Bind

At the monthly meeting of our graduate program directors this morning, the Dean of Graduate Studies reported back from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies annual conference that took place last week. One of the key talking points was the plenary talk, “The Roles, State, and Impact of Post-Secondary Education in Canada—Discussion on the Preliminary Research Findings of the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education in Canada” by Carl Amrhein and Daniel Munro. Both are affiliated with the Conference Board of Canada and involved in the overview of post-secondary education in Canada being undertaken by the Board at the federal government’s request. The overview is happening under the aegis of the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE), and is intended to “be a major five-year initiative that will examine the advanced skills and education challenges facing Canada today.” And what did these two people, working at the Centre for Skills, reporting on “advanced skills,” have to say?

This: we need to stop talking about post-secondary education in terms of skills.

It’s not a surprise, really. The government is obsessed with the so called “skills gaps” and its economic repercussions. How real that gap or its repercussions are is still up for major debate. In the government’s focus on slotting people into specific and well-defined roles, on productivity, on economic growth, skills have become the obvious focus of the discussion of higher education. And that is, as we all probably already recognize, a major problem. It certainly represents a significant disconnect between what the university is supposed to be doing–educating–and what the government wants it to be doing–training. As Max Blouw from the Council of Ontario Universities convincingly argues, universities should educate, employers should train. We need people with more than skills. We need people who can think, empathize, analyze, and be flexible enough to walk the meandering career path that is now the norm.

As universities like mine undergo major prioritization reviews, this skills focus takes on increased significance. What useful skills does a Master’s degree in Gender Studies provide, the skills-focused wonder? What does a Humanities PhD bring to the table, and to the economy? Why should we keep finding these programs, the logic goes? And in many places, as the logic goes, so do these programs. So do major sources of support for all those fields that don’t provide obvious skills, the arts and humanities foremost. And so, Munro argued, we need to change the conversation, to talk even louder (for talk we do) about all of the benefits of a university education that can’t be categorized under the rubric of “skills.”

And yet.

For graduate education, I can’t dismiss the focus on skills so easily. Major surveys by CAGS, by HECQO, by graduate bodies internationally, demonstrate a real (or at least a perceived) need for transferable skills training for graduate students aiming for the #alt- and the #post-ac. If the perceived lack of skills hurts undergraduates as they enter the job market, it’s about ninety times worse for PhDs. So even as my Dean related the gist of the CAGS keynote, she also announced that the position for a graduate professional and transferable skills coordinator, the one I argued we needed when I piloted the role and developed policy last year, is in the process of being created. I’m really happy that the every student at the university will now have access to the professional development they need, that not only can they practice transferable skills, but that they can put them on their resumes and demonstrate to employers that they have them.

But, even without additional training, we already have skills. We can write, speak, teach, plan, coordinate, budget, analyze, synthesize, research, use social media. And we have so much more than skills. What we need, more than skills training, is the ability to talk about what we do as graduate students and as PhDs in terms that make sense to everyone in the middle of this skills conversation. So yes, Munro is right. We need to change the subject. But as we do that, we also need to know how to speak the language. And how to do both–how to get to our ultimate goal of living in a world that recognizes what a university education does for people, and what those people can do for, and in, the world–is a challenge I’m not quite sure how to face.