Most final-year PhD students can probably identify with needing a break from thesis writing. The desire for a break motivated me to sign up for Edinburgh Local GRADschool, an annually occurring three-day workshop for PhD candidates in the last eighteen months of their studies. Vitae launched this intensive and highly rewarding professional development course in 1968, and GRADschools have taken place across the UK since then (2017). The GRADschool vision is to create an inspirational, challenging and experiential learning environment in which all participants will learn something new about themselves and take away skills, tools or information which will motivate them to complete their studies, further realise their potential, and enable them to make more informed choices about their future careers (Vitae 2017).
The Institute for Academic Development explains that GRADschools are “a unique experience [which] makes them difficult to describe” (2017). I was, therefore, unsure what to expect when I arrived on day one. I definitely did not anticipate the GRADschool’s transformative potential, which can be unlocked through active engagement in the tasks set by its highly qualified tutors.
The course director’s welcoming message set the tone from the beginning: “in order to grow, we must venture outside our comfort zone.” The GRADschool would, therefore, consist of various exercises designed to nudge its approximately sixty participants to constantly challenge themselves with the support of peers and a designated mentor. We would do professional and personal skills development exercises. We would undertake case studies to practise transferable skills like creativity, communication, and time management. Moreover, we would increase our knowledge about potential career options and learn to manage our career through sessions on CV design and interview practice. Each exercise would be followed by group reflection.
The first group exercise, “the marshmallow challenge,” put our teamwork skills to the test. The time provided afterwards to discuss how the way we worked together as a team laid the foundation for subsequent constructive evaluations of individual strengths and ways to make use of these to get the most out of set assignments. For instance, my group had to rebrand Tesco and present our media strategy in front of everyone. The sense of achievement upon completion of such exercises is difficult to explain. Not only did it raise awareness of individual strengths and group dynamics, it gave a massive confidence boost. As the three engaging training days came to a close, the course director’s parting message reinstating the need to venture outside one’s comfort zone to grow felt pertinent.
A key reason that GRADschools are notoriously difficult to describe might be that professional and personal development lie at their core. Such individual growth takes place as a result of peers and mentors challenging you to be open to new experiences. It means that GRADschool is a unique experience for each participant. I left feeling motivated to finish my PhD and reassured that I would be highly employable because of the numerous transferable skills gained from such studies. Three days might seem like a substantial amount of time away from thesis writing, but it is time well worth investing. I would encourage any PhD student to step outside their comfort zone and apply for Edinburgh Local GRADschool. It is an experience too unique to be captured by words.
Institute for Academic Development. 2017. “Further Course Information.”
Find out more about Edinburgh Local GRADschool including how to sign up for this year’s version on the IAD website.