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CAGS Award for Excellence and Innovation in Enhancing the Graduate Student Experience (GSE Award)

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The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) offers annually the Award for Excellence and Innovation in enhancing the graduate student experience. The award will be presented at the CAGS Annual Conference to a member institution or to one of its graduate programs in recognition of outstanding administrative and/or programmatic contributions to enhancing the graduate student experience and outcomes of graduate education. This was formerly known as the CAGS/ETS Award.


Winning Program Incorporates Work Skills into Curriculum


Ottawa - Polytechnique Montréal’s complementary doctoral training program is the 2016 winner of the CAGS Award for Excellence and Innovation for Enhancing the Graduate Student Experience.

Organizers integrated input from students and professors, best practices from the United States and Europe, and discussions with other CAGS institutions in the process of designing a program that prepares graduate engineering students for diverse employment.

In place since 2012, it consists of a series of workshops of one credit each, deployed over the three years of the doctoral process. Four primary workshops are mandatory. They have been integrated into the curriculum and must be completed by the end of the fourth semester in order for a student to pass their comprehensive examination. All workshops consist of 15 hours of classroom time in addition to assignments tailored to the student's research project. The workshops of the second and third steps are taken on a voluntary basis.

Last year Polytechnique conducted an evaluation of the program to test its success as determined by the 374 students who had then completed the mandatory section of the program.

“Nearly 75 per cent of the respondents felt the program enabled them to better prepare for each step of the doctoral process, “says Pierre Baptiste, director of graduate studies and former director of mathematical and industrial engineering.

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Pierre Baptiste, director of graduate studies and former director of mathematical and industrial engineering



“The results of this evaluation were essential to validate and improve the complementary doctoral training at Polytechnique, and serve as a model for institutions which, like us, want to support the process and development of doctoral students in their programs and in preparing for their career.” Last July, two workshops were presented at the Winter School of the Doctoral Academy, in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

“This award is well-deserved and shows how Canada’s graduate schools are responding to their students’ needs and current market demands,” says Dr. Brenda Brouwer, CAGS president. “Polytechnique’s program creates significant opportunities to gain experience and learning beyond the dissertation.”

Polytechnique Montréal is one of the largest education and research establishments in engineering in Canada. It has more than 5,000 students at the undergraduate level, and more than 2,000 at the graduate and post-graduate levels, including 700 in doctoral studies.

The Award for Excellence and Innovation in Enhancing the Graduate Experience is offered annually to a CAGS institution or one of its graduate programs. This year’s winners will receive their citation in November at the CAGS conference. Polytechnique’s work will be highlighted during a workshop led by Jean Dansereau and Élise Saint-Jacques.


Queen’s University Recognized for Work on Student Wellness


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Dr. Sandra den Otter, Associate Dean at Queen’s School of Graduate Studies


SGS Habitat: Resources to Live Well and Stay Well in Graduate School has won the 2015 CAGS/ETS Award for Excellence and Innovation in Enhancing the Graduate Student Experience.

The Queen’s University program’s comprehensive approach to supporting the wellness and balance challenges faced by its graduate students was cited by the CAGS judges. They pointed to the coherent planning and program evaluation as a model that is both effective and transformative. They were impressed with the program’s ongoing integration of specialists, faculty and students to ensure relevance and helpfulness.

That philosophy is reinforced by Dr. Sandra den Otter, Associate Dean at Queen’s School of Graduate Studies who spearheads the project.

“We need transparency about the challenges that graduate students can experience,” says den Otter. “Graduate life is an exciting time. There are so many opportunities to grow, to develop ideas, to push boundaries and to create new knowledge. But that comes with challenges.” She says student consultation and feedback have been fundamental. It has helped refine a program which includes one-to-one counselling, peer support groups, workshops, dissertation boot camps, online resources, and much more.

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Focus and Balance at Dissertation on the Lake


An example of outside-the-box thinking is a graduate-focussed retreat, Dissertation on the Lake. It is designed to kick-start a disciplined writing process and to foster a community among peers. Fresh air, good food, exercise and like-minded peers have made it a popular tool. Queen’s organizers keep it affordable for students by setting up at a nearby biological station that belongs to the university and through investments from donors and the graduate school.

“There are many things that make a graduate school great,” says Sally Rutherford, CAGS’s executive director. “But high up on that list is the way it supports its students as they push their academic and personal boundaries.”

That is no small feat for a school with more than 4,000 graduate students from 70 countries.

“Graduate students are an integral part of our institutional identity, and we want them to know that they have a community backing them,” says Brenda Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean, Queen’s School of Graduate Studies. “SGS Habitat is a go-to place for resources, information and strategies. These are tools that will last a lifetime.”

Program organizers say they will use the prize money for a graduate challenge. Students will be asked to create podcasts, blog entries, and videos, articles to share ways of staying well and balanced in graduate school.

“It’s a way to keep the conversation going about living well and staying well and to generate ideas with those who know this world best – the students themselves, “ says Dr. den Otter

The annual ETS award is sponsored by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and the Educational Testing Service. It is presented to a CAGS member school in recognition of innovations that enhance graduate student experience and outcomes. It will be presented in October at the CAGS Annual Conference in Calgary.

Want to read more about how the SGS Habitat program works. Here’s an in-depth description (pdf).


Previous Winners

2014

Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (FGPS) at Wilfrid Laurier University

Wilfrid Laurier University: Innovative Approach Gets National Recognition.


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Ottawa - The Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (FGPS) at Wilfrid Laurier University is the winner of the 2014 CAGS/ETS Award for Excellence and Innovation in Enhancing the Graduate Student Experience.

The recognition is for the ASPIRE project - a professional skills development training program aimed at improving post-degree success. It supports students in the development of business, leadership, teaching, research and communication skills that are essential to successful post-academic careers. More than 250 seminars, workshops and courses were offered in the 2013-14 academic year.

Laurier has been providing extra-curricular skills training for years. In this tradition, the ASPIRE program kicked it up a notch by creating a central hub that co-ordinated workshop details, a calendar and registration. Joan Norris, dean of the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at Laurier, says student feedback and other qualitative tracking has been an important part of customizing how the service works.

The training modules have become so effective that individual graduate programs at Laurier are starting to incorporate them as required curricula.



“Supporting the student transition from a graduate program to a profession is one of the most important challenges facing graduate schools,” says Norris. “This program promises to revolutionize how Laurier students apply the skills acquired in graduate programs. It increases their potential contribution to their workplaces, their communities and beyond.”

Norris says that the program has encouraged faculty to recognize the importance of professional skills development. The result is a polished graduate armed with a suite of transferable skills. This is an asset for business, corporate and government placements. It is increasingly important in academic careers as well.

“Graduate students are demanding professional skills training in growing numbers, and graduate schools are responding,” says CAGS president Noreen Golfman. “We congratulate Wilfrid Laurier and the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies for an innovative approach to this challenge.”

The annual ETS award is sponsored by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and the Educational Testing Service. It is presented to a CAGS member school in recognition of innovations that enhance graduate student experience and outcomes. It will be presented in October at the CAGS Annual Conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

For more information:
Gail Dugas
CAGS Communications
613.334.5658

2013

Faculty of Graduate Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland

E-Defence Program Receives Innovation Award.

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An initiative at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) that incorporates technology into the dissertation defence process has won the 2013 CAGS/ETS Award for Excellence and Innovation in Enhancing the Graduate Student Experience.

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MUN’s School of Graduate Studies uses a web conferencing platform that makes it possible for an external examiner to participate from most anywhere in the world.

The judges were impressed that the set up was user-friendly and took into consideration the wide variance in technological know-how and software limitations of potential examiners.

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Overcoming the perception that the technology was complicated or would take away from the presentation was critical to the program, say MUN administrators.

“Technology is supposed to make things simpler,” says Mark English, MUN School of Graduate Studies programs coordinator. “The benefits would be lost if the intended users could not easily use it. We knew that in most cases we would only be working with an examiner the one time. A technical solution had to be very straightforward and accessible.”

Approximately 60 e-defences have been conducted at MUN since the program started.

CAGS President and MUN’s Dean of Graduate Studies, Noreen Golfman chaired the university’s first e-defence in March 2011. “It was interesting, because here we were facilitating an oral defense just as we have countless times before, but this time one of the examiners happened to be present electronically instead of in the flesh,” she says. “But it was all done in real time and couldn’t be easier. Our goal is for the majority of oral defences to be conducted electronically.”

Award judges felt that early technical glitches have been ironed out.

“It is pretty seamless and quite impressive,” says Nicole Balliet, research project officer at the University of Northern British Columbia and one of this year’s judges.

“You can see that it has potential, particularly for institutions away from larger centres. “We have a lot of fog here and regular travel challenges. It makes sense.”

In fact, weather was at least part of the inspiration for MUN becoming one of the earliest adopters of this change to the defence process.

“Our location played a role in our search for innovation. Everyone knows what weather on ‘the rock’ can be like,” says Andrew Kim, director, Graduate Enrolment Services. “We are talking about someone spending years of hard work to finally defend a scholarly work before a panel of academic examiners. It puts a lot of stress on the student when that has to be postponed. Rescheduling is also really inconvenient for the examiner – and costly for the university.”

On average, an examiner spends three workdays travelling toand attending a traditional defence. The program has saved an estimated $70,000 annually in travel and administrative costs.

But cost saving is just one benefit.

“We have been able to have access to the best experts in the world for our graduate students,” says Faye Murrin, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at MUN. “The examiners’ geographical location no longer limits their appointment. We have had top examiners from nearly every continent. The process often reduces wait times for students to receive their degree.”

Although the digital tools have been available for several years, MUN seems to be one of few North American institutions to incorporate e-defence into its regular operations and into its green plan.

“As we were starting, we looked around for some examples we could emulate and there wasn’t much out there,” says Golfman. “As the benefits become more obvious we hope more universities will adopt our model.”

The award is sponsored by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and The Educational Testing Service and given to a CAGS member school in recognition of innovations that enhance graduate student experience and outcomes. It will be presented in November at the CAGS Annual Conference in Montreal.

Read more about the e-defence program at MUN.

Related stories:
http://today.mun.ca

2012 Faculty of Graduate Studies, McGill University
2011 Faculty of Education, Université de Montréal
2010 Faculty of Graduate Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland