Improving the professional development of graduate students

New NSF grant aims to improve the professional development of grad students

Engineering graduate students are some of the most technically trained students on a university campus, but sometimes they lack the personal skills acquired in professional development such as leadership, conflict management and adaptability. No matter how well students excel in their graduate degree curriculum, they often feel unprepared to fill the role of “employee.”

“For some students, it’s a pretty tough transition to the workplace and a hard interview when applying for a job,” said Brad Brummel, associate professor of psychology in the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences.

Brummel, who has researched professional development coaching, was asked to lend his expertise to a National Science Foundation project facilitated by Michael Keller, TU associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“My job is to produce the next generation of engineering and science researchers, but there’s not a program out there that focuses on teaching the importance of professional development,” Keller said.

grad student research
Left to right: Professors Bradley Brummel, Rami Younis and Michael Keller are studying the professional development of grad students.

TU’s NSF proposal, “Workplace Inspired Approaches for Improving Graduate Student Professionalism,” won a New Research Traineeship award in 2015 and provides Keller and Brummel with three years of research funding. Two additional faculty members from the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Assistant Professor of Petroleum Engineering Rami Younis and Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Daniel Crunkleton, will assist with the research. The group’s goal is to develop a technique that enables the intentional practice of nontechnical skills. They aim to determine the competencies that are essential for successful grad students and whether increased professionalism improves productivity, retention and success.

“We get caught up in using research papers as metrics for graduate students,” Keller said. “It’s easy to know when a math problem is right or wrong, but students must know how to handle themselves in a diverse workplace, give effective presentations and respond with grace and authority.”

The pilot project involves asking TU graduate students in mechanical, petroleum and chemical engineering to follow similar competency models that companies use to strengthen oral and written communications, conflict management, fairness and cultural adaptability. They will complete assessments about themselves and identify activities they can begin in graduate school and continue in the workplace.

“They’ll learn the language of professionalism and development,” Brummel said. “Hopefully, it will motivate them to attend TU’s etiquette dinner, join their professional societies and use their collegiate experiences as hooks for self-development.”

Software designed by industrial/organizational psychology alumnus Chris Wright (BA ’94, MA ’95, PhD ’00) will track the human measurement aspect of the project, including the student self-assessments as well as satisfaction surveys from their peers and advisers. Wright’s Tulsa technology firm, Reliant, provides talent management software solutions to companies worldwide.

“Professional development is so nebulous,” Brummel said. “That’s why competency markers are used to target areas for improvement. Students must ask themselves, ‘Can I talk to a technical audience and a lay audience, or what do I need to do to get where I need to be?’”

Brummel says one of the project’s biggest challenges is convincing graduate student advisers that preparing for employment is different from writing research papers.

“We’re looking at how to convince advisers that it’s worth their time,” Brummel said. “There’s a huge need for help in transitioning from a star performer student to an effective manager or leader as an employee.”

The TU interdisciplinary team hopes to begin identifying student participants for the project this spring.