My thoughts on the GRADschool course

November 7, 2012

Having just started the 3rd year of my (3 year) PhD I’ve been thinking recently about what I want to do when I finish.  There’s one job I’m very interested in doing but I think competition will be tight so I know I need to:

a)      Make sure I know what skills I will need for the job

b)      Make sure I actually have the skills for the job

c)      Just check that there are no other jobs I would be equally happy doing

I’ve been trying to work this out for some time but every time I sit down to have a think about it, whether at home or in the office, something interrupts me.  I wasn’t making any progress at all and was getting very frustrated.  Then I heard about a postgraduate course called GRADschool that was aimed at helping postgrads with their career choices and development.

I’ve decided to write my time on this course up as a blog post because well:

1)      I’ve been trying to tell people about it but I tend to get a wee bit over enthusiastic (start waving my arms about wildly etc.) and then people start to look at me a bit strangely…

2)      I’m very much a verbal type of person so writing it down/talking to myself is one of the ways I best take in information etc.  I’m basically using it to reflect on my experience.

But hopefully this post won’t just be useful for me but will be useful for any other postgrads out there considering whether or not to go on the course.

So what is GRADschool?

Well this residential course is run by Vitae (a fabulous resource for anyone in academia whether you plan on staying in for life or escaping as soon as possible).  To quote from their website:

UK GRADschools are experiential learning courses designed to develop your transferable skills as a postgraduate researcher. Many researchers who attend the course have a transformational experience, empowered to take charge of their own learning and career.

UK GRADschools are designed to enable you to:

  • develop your personal effectiveness
  • identify ways to communicate effectively
  • make more informed choices about your future and own and manage the next step of your career.

Admittedly that does all sound a little bit jargony – very much the sort of language that as a scientist I’m suspicious of!  However, having heard good things about the course from others (including my supervisor) I decided to put my cynicism to one side and apply.

At this point I need to say a very big thanks to the Society for General Microbiology for funding my place on the GRADschool – thank you so much!  I wouldn’t have been able to attend without your help.

So on to the course…

[I should just say – I’m not going to talk about exactly what the activities were – I don’t know if the same activities will be used again but I don’t want tPanic!o spoil it for anyone attending a course in the future.]

Last week I headed up to Bowness-on-Windermere ready to ‘develop [my] personal effectiveness’.  I was a little nervous… ok I was a lot nervous.  For a start I was going to be sharing a room with someone I had never met which was a little scary, plus looking at the timetable there were things like ‘buddy time’ which sounded like I might have to bare my soul to someone… :S

Day 1

During the first task I met up with the 7 other people who would make up my group for the 3 days.  The main (stated) aim of the task was to be creative.  Initially I didn’t think this was going to be a great start as ‘creativity’ isn’t something I would normally associate with myself but it turned out to be a really good icebreaker and even I came up with a few ideas (note to self: maybe I’m not quite as uncreative as I thought?).

The first morning we were also put into our buddy pairs. We would stay with the same buddy for the next 3 days and would ‘coach’ them – basically help them identify what they wanted to achieve from the course/whether they did achieve it/what they wanted to work on in the future etc. Our buddies would also coach us back.  Luckily we had a session on what ‘coaching’ actually was and some pointers before they let us loose on each other!

The first afternoon we had a mock interview session.  We had all submitted our CVs tailored to a specific job advert and in pairs we interviewed each other.  When the interview ended the whole group gave feedback on the interviewee’s performance.  Although it sounds horrifically scary (and it kind of was!) I found it really useful and came away with a lot of tips and suggestions.

Finally at the end of the day (and at the end of every day) the group had ‘group review and buddy time’ with our tutor.  This was time for us to reflect in our pairs and in our groups about what had worked during the day, what hadn’t worked, and what we wanted to focus on the next day.

Day 2

The morning of day 2 was probably the most fun bit of the course as we went to Vertical Air and did some activities on their ropes course.  I was very proud that 2 of my teammates and I managed to climb to the top of Jacob’s Ladder (see halfway down that page).  What I was most impressed by, though, was the way the group worked together in the activities that involved all of us and the way the group learnt.  So although our teamwork wasn’t perfect in the first activity we learnt from that and adapted how we approached the next task and so were more successful in it.

In the afternoon the group was set a case study.  During the case study our group joined another group.  This proved surprisingly difficult: we had kind of worked out our group dynamics so the arrival of new people, plus the increasing of the group from 8 to 16, made things a bit uncomfortable.

During the group time that evening we were asked to think about the teamwork etc. that had gone on during the day.  For me, I had recognised in the morning that planning and preparation were important to a team’s success, but although I had tried to put that into play during the afternoon’s task, under the time pressure I didn’t think I had been that successful.

I definitely found day 2 the most challenging and I think it taught me a lot about myself.

Day 3

The final day started with us thinking about the values that are important to us.  In our group we identified 10 values from a list (of over 300) that we felt were most important to us individually and then had to identify our top 3.  I think I was reasonably happy with what things are important to me before the course but doing this activity did help bring the most important things into more focus.

The afternoon session was very much a problem solving session where we split into small groups and brainstormed solutions for different problems.  Another test of creativity I guess, plus we got to work with people we hadn’t necessarily worked with before which was a good experience.  (Oh, and we did actually come up with some useful solutions as well!)

We ended the day by getting together in our groups again and thinking back both to the day and the whole course.  (Technically we actually ended the day with a party but that’s probably less relevant to this post!)

So what did I get out of it?

I learnt more about myself I think: I learnt more about both my strengths and my weaknesses.  I feel that I can now approach the whole ‘job/career’ challenge with a bit more focus and a bit more confidence.  I also feel a bit more motivated about my PhD and better able to handle getting it finished.

So all in all I found the course incredibly useful.  I would recommend it to any postgrad whatever they hope to do in the future.  It really does do what the blurb says it aims to do and more…


Busy Desk: By MZMcBride and released into the public domain.  Available here

Less Busy Desk: Original picture by MZMcBride. Derivative work by Train2104.  Available here

Panic Button: With thanks to John for making this available.

Working Together Image: Made available by lumaxart

One comment

  1. […] 1) One of my fellow course participants wrote about the course on her blog. […]

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