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Don't Take My Word for It, Just Go!

If you get the opportunity to go to a Research Councils' Graduate School, go! I came back fizzing with enthusiasm from one such course in Durham and tried to explain to other Ph.D. students just why it was so good and why they too should grab the opportunity. And frankly, I failed.

Explaining that the 5-day course provides training in career skills and personal development, and involves role-plays, interviews, and presentations, tends not to engender a great deal of enthusiasm. Add further that it's hard work, challenging, and the days run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and blatant scepticism surfaces. Finally, explaining that I really enjoyed the experience leaves people making a mental note to avoid me in the future and openly looking around for someone else to talk to.

There are a number of Graduate Schools held each year at many places around the country, usually based in halls of residence, and they're free to Research Council- and Wellcome Trust-funded students and members of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Roughly 90 second- and third-year Ph.D. students take part, and they are organised into groups of about 10. Each group is looked after by a 'tutor,' all of whom work in the world at large. The course is intensive, with a long series of team-based activities, which on my course included devising plans to save a university department, rescue a business, and regenerate an urban area. There is also a chance to improve your CV and interview skills. All the games, role-plays, and challenges are well organised, fun, or if not wholly fun, useful. It's an opportunity to try things, and it's an atmosphere where you can make a fool of yourself and not worry (I speak from personal experience!).

But why are these grad schools so good? In the first place, I think there is a need for the kind of experience the course provides. A Ph.D. is excellent training for working in an academic research environment. Every postgraduate student becomes very adept at learning new techniques, using different software, communicating ideas, and working within a research group. However, the very nature of a Ph.D. means gaining a very specialised knowledge while moving in a small research community. It can be all too easy to lose sight of the world outside. The Graduate Schools provide an opportunity to explore and discover just what other career paths may be open to you, while gaining and improving the skills necessary to follow them. Actually, one point is proven over and over again. Through all the marketing, 'running a business,' and 'deciding social policy' games, it becomes clear that the skills required in these arenas are the same as those used every day in completing a Ph.D.; namely innovation, teamwork, and communication. The only difference is in the application.

Secondly, it's more than a chance to get a break from the pressure of work, although this may be reason enough to go! Rather it's a chance to look up, out, and beyond the detail of your research and look at the surroundings: It's a time to consider your place in the world, what's important about it, and where to go next. The only unfortunate thing is that it's so hectic that there's no time to think about what you've just done, or cement the ideas you have. So while the games are very team-based, I think everyone in Durham took home something that was entirely personal to them. This may be the reason why it's difficult to explain to others just why it's worthwhile going, but also why, even if you're convinced the academic path you're on is the right one, you'll gain a lot from it: I defy you not to.

But, the most immediate benefit of the 5 days is the people you're surrounded by. The tutors not only lead the eight or nine groups (and in our case to at least try and make sure the rules of the activities were followed), they also share their experiences in amazingly varied career paths. Careers represented at Durham included management consultancy, IT, fundraising, social policy, Web design, arts administration, technology transfer, and teaching in various types of institutions. You are positively encouraged to use them as a resource and ask questions, however stupid--apparently it's counted as improving networking skills. I personally found the 'mentors' assigned to each group the most useful to talk to--most had gained a doctorate 2 or 3 years ago and had moved into new areas.

But best of all are the other students. Everyone is thrown in at the deep end, which leads to a lasting camaraderie. Certainly everyone was willing to work and play hard, exploring new depths of sleep deprivation (and also taste deprivation once inside Durham's nightclub). So I suppose this is really where the enjoyment of the week comes in. For example, I'd love to tell you more about the comedians in my group, but I'd have to change names to protect the guilty.

So while it may sound initially unappealing, and you may well doubt that there's anything to be gained, chance it, go on a Graduate School and make up your own mind. I came back with a determination to finish my Ph.D., and a new confidence and positivity about trying career options I had considered more tentatively previously. Though having gained this new optimism and drive, my first actions, in contrast, were to spend a week e-mailing everyone in my group! Two last bits of advice: Make time afterward to consider all you have done and, finally, book a couple of further days off work--you'll need to sleep!

Stop Press: There are still a few places available on Graduate Schools this year. To register visit the Graduate Schools Web site.!

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