If you’ve ever organised a training programme for PhD students around a “non-core” topic like “working with industry”, you know how difficult it can be to get students to attend. You also know how important it is to develop these “transferable” skills in PhDs. We recently had the opportunity to run a pilot designed specifically to work this problem. In this blog I wanted to share the experience and our top 5 takeaways.
We’ve been working with King’s College London over the past 18 months, delivering a range of 1-day “transferable skills” workshops for Health Science PhD students. The workshops were great, but attendance wasn’t what it needed to be. We had to figure out a way to get busy PhD students to engage in a transferable skills training programme.
We got the Skillfluence team together for some brainstorming…
“What if we improve the marketing?” “Maybe make a video, make it really engaging… make it stand out, make it feel exciting...fun… interesting.”
“What if we make it extremely relevant?” “What if the programme helped them with something they’re working on right now?” “Yeah, so it doesn’t add to their workload, but actually helps them with their projects.”
“What if the students could work through the materials when they had time (i.e. on their terms) instead of when we wanted them to?” “Yeah, everyone can find at least 1 hour at some point during the week.”
“What if we designed a programme that did all of this?”
We ran it by the client. They said, “Let’s give it a try.”
We started designing and building. We decided to try this approach on the course, “Connecting with Industry.” We built a blended programme delivered over 6 weeks, that combined on-line training with live workshops. We structured the programme as 4 key modules – 1) Understanding Industry; 2) Understanding Business; 3) Communicating with Industry; 4) Careers in Industry.
We combined a number of key elements designed to increase engagement and deliver maximum learning ROI – more learning in less time invested:
- Promotional Video – Video about the programme to help create excitement.
- Application process (with limited seats) – This made the programme more valuable to participants.
- Kick-off Workshop (1/2 day) – We introduced key concepts and started to build a cohort.
- On-line assessment – Provided students with insights into their strengths and interests and how they fit with potential career paths.
- 4 webinars – 1-hour webinar for each module, which were recorded so they could be viewed later.
- Application Activities – Each webinar concluded with an application assignment.
- On-line Learning Platform – Portal for accessing additional content and uploading assignments.
- Application Feedback – We provided individual feedback for completed assignments.
- Final Workshop (1-day) – Opportunity to apply the new skills with peers. Also included a panel of former PhD students now active in industry. This workshop was a fantastic networking opportunity.
The 2 areas we were most interested in, were interest (number of signups) and engagement throughout the programme (attendance and assignment completion). Below is some of the key data:
- 33 initial sign-ups (nearly double that signed up for traditional workshop format)
- 33 attended the first workshop
- 70% assignment completion rate
- 65 % Live webinar attendance rate.
- 40% of those who didn't attend the live webinar, watched the recorded version later.
- 32 attended the final workshop
While the learning was immense, there were probably 5 key learnings that have had the biggest impact on us and how we think about training design for PhD development programmes:
- Make it stand out – It’s worth spending time (and some money) to create a high-quality promotional piece.
- Make it applied & relevant – All of the application activities allowed the students to work on an area that was relevant to their studies. We believe this is why completion rate and engagement levels were so strong.
- Industry experience makes it “real” – One of the most popular elements of the programme was the industry panel. It provided students with valuable perspectives and insights about possible career paths, with practical next steps.
- Face-to-face is important – The live workshops were important to the success of the programme as it allowed participants to build their network, get real-time feedback and practice their new skills in a live environment. We believe the combination of on-line and face-to-face offers richer experience than either on its own.
- Individual feedback – The students loved receiving personalised feedback on the assignments. This created more value for the students, and we believe it also helped increase engagement and assignment completion rates throughout the course.
Based on this initial pilot, we’re extremely excited about the potential of blended approaches to PhD skills development. The great news is that the Kings College shares our excitement and we’ve just set dates for v.2 of this course (with upgrades!) to be run later this year!