Merging academia and professional experiences: Skills and lessons learned

two business professionals working

I had many reservations upon entering grad school. One thing I feared most was becoming completely disconnected from the professional world outside of academia. The PhD experience can be isolating. I wanted to invest myself in my research, but I didn’t want my degree to undermine my ability to build the professional skills I needed to make myself marketable outside of academia. That’s why I jumped on the opportunity to work as a research assistant on a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) funded community initiative centered on the effectiveness and transparency of Ontario’s Police Complaints System (PCS).

The purpose of this project was to understand challenges with the PCS and produce recommendations to amend the PCS. To address these goals a team of researchers, practitioners, and I organized and facilitated a two-day forum event. The Forum incorporated a number of different stakeholders including: community/health organizations, community members, police, and academics. The inclusion of multiple stakeholders with competing interests was challenging, as conflicts (sometimes heated) were inevitable, but it was also extremely rewarding as it provided the opportunity to gain a holistic understanding of what the challenges with the PCS are, and what could be done to improve the system. In fact, I found my experience with the Forum to be the most rewarding opportunity I have had in grad school to date.

Given the practical setting of this event, this experience also provided the opportunity to develop and practice a number of professional skills I would not have had the chance to obtain in my degree alone. This includes some of the following skills:

(1) I gained project management skills. I learned how to plan, organize and implement a large scale event that included various stakeholders. This involved outreach activities, participation in various meetings, budgeting, and practicing time management skills;

(2) I learned how to facilitate a large-scale event. This involved paying close attention to detail to ensure the two-day forum operated smoothly and coherently;

(3) I learned the value of teamwork, and how to work collaboratively with various team members;

(4) I learned how to take initiative in a leadership role;

(5) I enhanced my communication skills by learning how to communicate effectively with various stakeholders; and finally,

(6) I learned how to problem solve, pre-emptively and in ‘real time’ as unforeseen problems occurred during and after the event.

The professional skills I earned were complemented well by the research skills I developed during this project.

This endeavour required me to take a big leap outside of my comfort zone. At times it was stressful and busy, but I would not change this experience for the world, as it provided me with the opportunity to gain and practice professional skills that can be applied in any setting, inside or outside of academia! My advice to all graduate students is to always look to your future. Do not be complacent in your field of study. Find ways to connect with others, even if you are set on an academic career, and challenge yourself to develop professional skills that are transferable to a variety of contexts. Take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. This will ensure that you are ready for any adventure after grad school. The PhD is about more than academic expertise, it is about growth. Never stop challenging yourself to grow.

Sonya Buffone is a PhD Candidate in the department of Sociology and Legal studies, at the University of Waterloo. Sonya’s research interests are in quantitative and qualitative methods, crime, and policing. Her dissertation research focuses on the roles and activities of media relations officers (MROs) in police departments in the province of Ontario, with a specific focus on how MROs construct crime and the police image for public consumption. Follow Sonya on Twitter: @buffone_sonya

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