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Experiential Learning with the PhD-Community Initiative

Setting Ideas in Motion – this initiative has brought together PhD students from a variety of research fields into interdisciplinary teams to assist organizations in the Kingston community.

The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) runs a number of exciting and helpful programs throughout the school year from their dissertation boot camps and Expanding Horizons workshops. Throughout my PhD at Queen’s I’ve tried to attend as many as I can, because (as a bonus that not enough people know about) you can actually get a not-for-credit Certificate in Professional Development if you complete at least one workshop from each of the six skill areas they offer and a total of 12 workshops! (For a full list of these workshops make sure to check out the SGS’s website.)

20180314-GBP-Capstone-Event-54The sixth-skill set is Setting Ideas in Motion and looks at ways that we as graduate students can use the skills we learn while pursuing a graduate degree and transfer it to non-academic uses. I am personally very interested in this skill-set as I’m looking for employment outside of academia post-PhD, and though there are many options out there, it is vital for those choosing  this option to know how they can sell their skills to those outside of the academia vacuum. Just because you’re studying medieval castles, for example, does not mean your career choice is limited to being a scholar, professor or historian (not that those are bad options at all!). We are learning research skills, how to distill mass amounts of information, how to write clearly and persuasively, how to argue our theses, and many other skills that make us suitable for a wide range of other employment outside of academia. The same applies if you are coming from any other discipline and it is important to learn how we can make connections between our own academic training and being able to convey its importance and relevance to audiences outside of academia.

One way to learn how to do so is through the PhD-Community Initiative – an annual program that brings together PhD students across all disciplines into teams who are tasked with solving an issue facing a community organization. I was intrigued by the program since it began several years ago, but as this may be my final at Queen’s, I decided this fall that it’s now or never! I joined up. It started with an evening in September where various community organizations presented us with information on what they do and the issues that they’re facing. As participants, we were encouraged to walk around afterwards and talk to each of these community partners, asking any questions we might have. The diversity in projects was so exciting, and hearing about the work being done in our community was illuminating. We heard from representatives from the City of Kingston, KCHC Immigrant Services Kingston, Pathways to Education Kingston and KEYS Job Centre to name a few. The PhDs then put down their top choices of organization and issue that they wanted to work with (which was an incredibly difficult choice to make), and in the next week we were matched up with a community organization and a team of other PhDs, along with a team mentor.

PhD-Community Initiative Capstone EventTeams were carefully selected so that they consisted of PhDs from diverse academic backgrounds – my own group is made of students from art history, chemistry, rehabilitation science and cultural studies – which is probably my favourite part of the program! None of us have experience in program design or acting as consultants for community organizations, so as a team we were are able to combine all of our skills together and approach our challenge together. Our mentor encouraged us to have weekly meetings, and even if we had nothing to report we would get together at the same time each week to talk about what we read, our thoughts on the project and where to go next. I got to know my team very well and we became fast friends. We then began meeting with our community partner regularly, as well as attended progress update meetings with the other PhD-Community Initiative teams. There were a number of professional development workshops that were a part of this process encouraging us to use design thinking, to work effectively as a team, and think about the skills that we were using throughout this process.

Now that it’s reaching the end of February, our team’s work is winding down to an end. On March 12th, there will be a large Capstone Event at The Isabel where the teams get to share what they’ve worked on throughout this school year to the wider community. Though each group encountered challenges (from managing our time as PhD students while also being volunteers, to working as a team with individuals coming from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, to figuring out what exactly we can actually do as a team to help solve a very legitimate issue that is facing a community organization), being part of this wider, supportive group and having the support of mentors (many of them being retired Queen’s faculty bringing their own expertise to the conversation) made the projects do-able and an incredible learning experience. Not often are there opportunities like this where you can get a hands-on learning experience like this, and the focus on reflecting on what we learned makes the PhD-Community Initiative an extremely rewarding experiential learning opportunity. If you’re intrigued by the program and considering giving it a shot for yourself next year, then please come out to the Capstone Evening for a better sense of what it involves!


*Photos courtesy of Dr. Rebecca Huegler from last year’s PhD-Community Initiative Capstone Event. A big thanks to Dr. Huegler and Dr. Heather Merla at the SGS for running the program this year!

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