Soft Skills for International Graduate Students

International graduate students accepted in US universities are arguably the best products of the academic systems in their home countries. However, when it comes to translating their prior academic success, these students still face an uphill battle.

Especially for students in the STEM fields, academic transition can be challenging because their academic disciplines and programs cannot afford the time and priority toward helping the students develop a broad enough range of academic and professional “soft” skills.

In this blog entry, I highlight some of the causes and consequences of academic and professional skills gap among international graduate students especially in STEM. Let me try to do so by using my personal experience of academic transition and my professional experience of working to support other international students navigate and succeed in the US academy.

Unlike their undergraduate counterparts who go through the process of learning the basic terms, concepts, skills, and values underlying the US academic culture, international students who enter directly into graduate studies have to start almost at the top. Many students don’t realize that they have missed the basics; but even when they do realize that, they often have nowhere to turn. They blame it on their “language,” don’t find out where and why  “soft skills” are critical until it is too late, or don’t know when or how to take advantage of the resources available on campus in order to address the soft skills gap. They have limited time and seemingly unlimited responsibilities to fulfill in their study and work, so the idea of picking up basic skills doesn’t usually receive a priority. Those who are lucky learn some of the skills from their mentors; but because the skills are not a part of formal or explicit teaching/learning in most STEM departments in most universities, most STEM students develop the soft skills through practice, on their own, often over the years beyond graduation.

International graduate students see their grades dramatically drop at first, but they quickly recover their academic standards; however, due to the lack of sufficient support mechanisms, international students tend to avoid or not appreciate the importance of skills for teaching effectively, developing their research agenda, charting the course of their professional development, communicating effectively with members of their discipline, networking with members of their profession, writing and publishing sufficiently, and making their academic research/scholarship situated and relevant to the society where they want to enter the profession.

I realized the academic gap that I described above as soon as I started my graduate studies in the US; in spite of the breadth of my knowledge about the discipline from my previous graduate level work followed by teaching, I was anxious about not understanding the basics of a new academic system. Fortunately, I was put in the position of tutoring/teaching the basics of the discipline to undergraduate students, so I got the unique opportunity to learn those basics myself before starting to teach undergraduate students and encountering the more advanced demands as a doctoral student.

I also started realizing the gap in my professional skills as I made academic progress as a graduate student; in spite of my prior professional experiences, I needed to learn or drastically expand my skills for teaching, research, presentation, and so on (I could not submit anything for publication in the US and instead did so from my home country Nepal). But, fortunately again, the academic program that I studied in gave high priority to the development of soft skills among its graduate students. Furthermore, my discipline generally specializes in helping students across the disciplines develop some of the most important soft skills that they need to be prepared for careers within and beyond the university (writing, research, teaching, critical thinking, communicating, etc.). Most significantly, I got the opportunity to work with my mentor and dean of graduate school, a scholar who was a true advocate for all graduate students across the university, toward developing a highly successful academic and professional development program, called the PLAN initiative, which was designed to address the gap that I described above.

All the above opportunities allowed me to develop a broad range of academic and professional soft skills over the course of my master’s and doctoral studies. My STEM counterparts didn’t seem to have the time for acquiring such skills; they could not give priority to the skills in their academic plans; and the skills were not recognized as much by their mentors as they were by mine.

Because I was working on my dissertation while developing the PLAN initiative, I integrated questions about how engineering scholars and students view, teach, learn, or otherwise practice the soft skills of writing and language use in general. The results of the dissertation showed that while engineering faculty highly valued writing and communication skills, they did not want to allocate time, explicitly teach, or even encourage students to spare the time and effort to learn those skills. And while they agreed that their own writing, after years of practice and experience, is rhetorically sophisticated—and indeed while engineering is by definition a discipline at the intersection of pure science and the professions outside academe, thereby requiring varied and high levels of communication skills—they also believed that engineering/technical writing is simple and straightforward, with no room for rhetorical or sociolinguistic variations. Furthermore, they believed that linguistic and communication skills automatically “happen” over the years in their students’ academic and professional lives, so there is no real need to explicitly teach such skills. Especially for international graduate students, these views and approaches were problematic.

Beyond the “academic gap,” however, my dissertation research also helped me realized that members of any discipline have what I call “layered” discourses about issues from outside of their specialization. As such, it seemed at first that the engineering professors and students defined language and writing in superficial ways, refused to acknowledge the importance of rhetorical skills in their writing and communication, and argued there is no need or room for explicit teaching/learning of linguistic/communication skills. However, their practices often betrayed their beliefs: even though they didn’t teach the soft skills explicitly, the students received support with the development of those skills as an integral part of their disciplinary work and professional activities.

By the end of my research, I not only recognized the complex layers of discourses and finely integrated practices of teaching/learning communicative skills, I was also convinced that the best approach for universities and their programs designed to address the soft skills gap is to start from the existing best practices among the STEM faculty and students.

Meanwhile, on the side of the professional development program (which had started with a view to providing international graduate students necessary support but evolved into a program for all students), I went on to help organize or develop workshops, web resources, and networking opportunities. Some of the workshops and resources that seem particularly useful for international graduate students in the STEM fields would be as follows:

  • Orientation on the basics of graduate education in the American university: Most new international graduate students need to learn the basic terms, concepts, skills, dos/don’ts, value systems, etc about the new academic culture/system. This need can be fulfilled by organizing a orientation workshop that is specifically focused on academic issue (as opposed to conventional international student workshops that cover cultural, visa-related, accommodation, and life skills issues with often little attention to academic knowledge and skills). The academic orientation workshop at the University of Louisville invited advanced international graduate students so they could share their experiences with new students through brief presentations and small group discussions; local students who joined in the presentation in order to highlight that they too face challenges; a few professors, of whom the new students could ask questions; and representatives from various service units like the Writing Center.
  • Writing workshops: The PLAN initiative “pooled” resources and expertise much more extensively than it produced them. In this case, the Writing Center offered multiple workshops, including dissertation workshops and summer retreats; grant writing workshops; workshops on reading efficiently and effectively at the graduate level; writing literature review; writing research proposal; developing a research agenda; and so on. While these workshops were not limited to international students, they were particularly useful for this student body.
  • Career development workshop: The Career Center offered workshops to help students create resumes out of their CVs, networking professionally, and so on. Because the Center was short on resources, the Dean herself (an English professor) developed and led various events including job hunting skills workshop, mock interviews, and so on. International students’ presence in these events showed that they both greatly desired and benefited from these workshops.
  • Research skills workshops: The graduate school invited experts from the office of research integrity to organize workshops on ethical issues regarding originality/plagiarism, collaboration, and ownership of work. Students were encouraged to attend events and utilize resources at the library. Both types of events were particularly useful for international graduate students, and their presence at the events exceeded their proportion in general.
  •  Programs for teaching assistants: International students also greatly benefited from teaching workshops which gradually developed into a formal program called the Teaching Academy, which was a year-long series of monthly workshops run by award-winning faculty members who helped students practice various teaching skills. This academy was collaboratively run with the faculty development center.
  • Other professional skills: The PLAN initiative included about five dozen different workshops, and some of them addressed how to respect and foster diversity in the classroom, manage conflict, manage stress, and manage time. I was involved in developing and presenting a whole series of workshops on effective use of technologies for teaching, research, and professional networking.

By the time I completed my studies and left the university, the program had begun to develop sets of related workshops by modeling on the highly successful teaching “academy.” From 300 students in the first year to 500 and almost 1000 students in subsequent years, student participation in the program was unprecedented. In fact, faculty (as well as graduate program directors) were highly engaged, with quite a few faculty members who enthusiastically offered to present workshops, send their students, and spread the word. Popularity of the programs led to en core presentations at the medical campus that was located a few miles away in downtown Louisville. Participation of international students exceeded the proportion of their overall numbers here as well.

Overall, the PLAN initiative was instrumental in helping international and other graduate students “plan” the course of their academic and professional development during graduate school, learn about the fundamentals of the university and thereby of their respective disciplines, accelerate their transition to and success in graduate school, and be much more prepared with essential professional skills for the job market or the next stage in their academic career.

In particular, the initiative helped international graduate students understand ideas and practices about pursuing a graduate education, conducting research and producing new knowledge, the role of student in relationship to their teachers and mentors, and so on.

Generally, universities provide support for international students through their international centers, which cover a wide range of the students’ needs. Unfortunately, international students typically have to make the most important transition—academic transition—on their own. Some universities do offer orientations for incoming international students to help them better understand the academic practices in the American university. However, academic orientations are often based on counterproductive “deficit” models about international students as individuals who need to replace their old set of ideas, skills, and perspectives about higher education with new ones. “International” students are considered one big category of “outsiders” who are defined by a lack of what they need in order to succeed in the US academy.

Universities need new approaches that both try to educate international students about the American educational culture and also recognizes the intellectual resource that these students bring into the academy. Avoiding the deficit model can help international students focus on the broader picture of their academic and professional development and strive to acquire/develop specific soft skills that they need in order to succeed in the university and prepare better for their future careers.

One of the most effective ways to help students acquire academic and professional soft skills without every academic department having to offer every type of support is by centrally developing a program that brings together faculty members, professionals from relevant service units on campus, and the students who need the support. The effectiveness of such an approach was amply demonstrated by the highly successful PLAN initiative that I helped launch at my alma mater.

Programs like the PLAN seem to work best when they try to ensure that faculty members value and reward their students for the latter’s participation and achievements.

Engaging program directors and other administrators can also greatly add to the effectiveness of such programs because faculty and students across campus can be reached through them.

And last but not the least, making sure that students are intrinsically motivated to take advantage of the opportunities can make the programs popular and successful in achieving their goals.

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