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U of T graduate students improve skills through improv

Graduate students gather in the School of Graduate Studies' Grad Room to socialize or take part in workshops (photo by Jason Krygier-Baum)

As University of Toronto graduate students take professional development into their own hands, out-of-the-box ideas like improv workshops have emerged. 

Patricia Thaine, a third-year PhD student in computer science, suggested the professional development initiative after a friend mentioned a transformative improv class she had taken at Hart House taught by Kevin McCormick. For Thaine, it ended up being just what she needed. 

“The improv workshops have helped me focus on creativity and improve my communication skills,” said Thaine. “I’ve built my confidence, which ultimately helps with public speaking and presentations, something I do regularly as a graduate student.”

It's helped other grad students as well. Swapna Mylabathula, who is in her fifth year of an MD/PhD program, said the improv workshop proved to be a great exercise for her communications skills. She liked it so much, she’s participated three times – and plans on doing more.

“I would love to take an improv class before giving any presentation,” said Mylabathula. “It puts you in the right mindset to be able to communicate your research and be prepared to answer any challenging questions. One of the great parts of being a grad student at U of T is there are so many opportunities for professional development in traditional and non-traditional ways.”

Workshops like this one are supported by the Innovation in Graduate Professional Development Fund. The fund was established by the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) to help develop and support new or expanded graduate professional development initiatives for both graduate students and post-doctoral researchers at the university.

“These funds are important because they provide support that empowers students to take initiative for themselves and their classmates,” said Thaine.

Liam O’Leary, graduate programming coordinator at SGS, says the Innovation in Graduate Professional Development Fund allows the university to really tap into what graduates are looking for and engage them in the process of addressing those needs.

“There is absolutely value in taking a workshop that’s been prepared,” said O’Leary. “But if you can generate an idea that will benefit you and your classmates, we have a fund to support you. There is a great deal of learning that’s experienced through executing an initiative from start to finish.”

Thaine is a great example of a student who stepped forward with an idea that came from a place of need, O’Leary said.

“Patricia recognized the importance of being able to think quickly on your feet, especially when discussing your research and proposed improvisation classes,” said O’Leary. “And, that’s exactly what the fund is for – supporting initiatives that help students prepare for real-life situations.”  

In addition to the fund, students also have access to Grad Room, a place to socialize, study or partake in a workshop. 

Locke Rowe, dean of SGS and vice-provost of graduate research and education, notes the importance of the various initiatives offered through SGS. 

“Graduate students have unique opportunities as well as challenges,” said Rowe. “Our job is to ensure they have the necessary tools and resources to transition from the classroom to the workforce once they leave the university.”

This transition is part of the offerings through the Graduate Professional Skills (GPS) Program at SGS. The program looks at success beyond grad school, largely focusing on transitioning into careers both within and outside an academic setting. This includes courses on project management, communication skills and entrepreneurship. 

SGS also offers Summer Institute for Graduate Professional Development, which is made up of skill-based workshops on leadership development, managing transitions and designing one's life. All workshops are fully accredited by SGS towards the GPS transcript notation. 

With convocation around the corner, Mylabathula thinks far ahead to her own graduation, and has advice for her fellow classmates. 

“Think of professional development beyond getting you to graduation,” she said. “Start exploring opportunities as early in your grad school experience as possible to help prepare you as you launch into your career.”

May 23, 2017

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