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Win-win for PhD students, community

New PhD-Community Initiative links teams of graduate students with several local organizations to help with specific issues and challenges.

A pilot program that connects interdisciplinary teams of Queen’s PhD students with community organizations in Kingston is up and running this fall, giving students a chance to apply their skills and knowledge, and offering several organizations fresh thinking that could help them move forward in a positive way.

PhD students participating in the PhD-Community Initiative attend a workshop on design-thinking led by Professor Jim McLellan. (Supplied photo)

“We are very excited about the PhD-Community Initiative,” says Brenda Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies (SGS). “The program offers numerous benefits to everyone involved. Our students gain hands-on, experiential learning that allows them to apply their critical thinking skills, creativity, and knowledge in a different way. They learn to appreciate the complementary skills and knowledge that each team member brings to the table and develop as a team working toward a common goal. The community organizations gain access to the tremendous talent, energy, and intellectual capacity that our students bring, and their enthusiasm to create positive change. Ultimately, all participants benefit through the students’ and organizations’ joint efforts.”

The PhD-Community Initiative is a new addition to the School of Graduate Studies’ Expanding Horizons program, under the new theme of Setting Ideas in Motion. Graduate students need and want new, creative ways to be engaged in the world outside their individual research projects, to be involved in the greater community, and to work with fellow students in other disciplines.

“As graduate students, we think in idealistic terms, wanting to make the world a better place. But sometimes that gets lost when you’re working alone on one specific project,” says Chris Cochrane, a PhD student in mechanical and materials engineering and former president of the Society for Graduate and Professional Students, who worked on the implementation team for the community initiative.

PhD student Chris Cochrane was on the implementation team for the PhD-Community Initiative and says the program gives graduate students "the opportunity to work directly with the community, and see how their skills can make change and help people." (University Communications) 

“Many students question whether they have influenced or changed anything through their graduate work. This initiative gives them the opportunity to work directly with the community, and see how their skills can make change and help people,” he says.

The initiative brings together PhD students from all disciplines into interdisciplinary teams of three or four members to work with local organizations. Five community groups have signed on with the project, including Sustainable Energy in Remote Areas (SERA), Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) Community Outreach Expansion, Sistema Kingston after-school program, Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet), and the Night Economy Project, a partnership with Kingston Economic Development Corporation (KEDCO).

Seventeen PhD students are participating in the pilot and are attending preparatory workshops on design-thinking and working effectively as a team before beginning work with their respective partner organization. Each team has an experienced mentor to provide guidance and advice, but it is very much the teams that will determine the project goals and anticipated outcomes.

"When I read the PhD-Community Initiative announcement, I felt excited about the possibility to apply my research skills in a professional setting outside of academia,” says Michael Carter, a PhD student in geography who will be working with Sistema Kingston. “The workshops have given me confidence that I can add value to my local community. I have already encouraged several of my peers to register for the next session.” 

More information about the initiative and the partner organizations is available on the SGS website.