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How digital badges can help Ph.D.s' careers (opinion)

Aug 10, 2023

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In the career and professional development space, we speak in the jargon of skills. We help students build skills, talk about their skills, transfer skills and translate skills—all in service of helping them eventually find meaningful work. But in my graduate school career I can’t remember the word “skills” entering the conversation at all; we were developing them, but we had a different jargon more focused on research, theory and teaching. Today, part of my job is helping students develop the strategies to articulate the outcomes from their Ph.D. in words employers understand.

An opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed from June highlighted how digital badges can be used as an effective tool for showcasing transferable skills that students gain in the course of pursuing their degrees. The authors make a compelling case for the value of digital badges but focus on how the badging program at Florida Gulf Coast University facilitates the recognition of the skills that undergraduates build. In this article, I want to talk about the value of digital badges for doctoral programs, where the word “skills” is rarely used and can even be taboo.

Digital badges are verifiable, competency-based learning credentials that certify an achievement or skill. Badges are designed to be accessible, specialized and short. They are a type of microcredential alongside others like certificates from training or MOOCs.

Our team at Boston University has designed a digital badging program called Ph.D. Progression for our Ph.D. students across the disciplines. Our badges are organized into three different levels of scaffolded learning pathways, each aligned with one of our Ph.D. core capacities. The university offers 160 badges in the curriculum, and each one is designed to take less than 90 minutes to complete.

There are five reasons why we decided that digital badges would be our solution for delivering professional development and skill-building content to Ph.D. students in our programs.

Here’s an example, from personal experience: in my second semester as a Ph.D. student, I walked into our graduate student lounge and found several colleagues in the midst of a discussion. They kept using an acronym in their conversation that I didn’t recognize. I covertly googled it, but the results didn’t show anything related to our discipline. Did I risk outing myself as an outsider who doesn’t know the jargon? Nope. I pretended I knew what they were talking about and stayed silent. (The topic of getting comfortable with saying “I don’t know” is fodder for a different article.)

The acronym in question was that of our disciplinary professional association—CAA, or the College Art Association—something I perhaps should have known. Yet despite doing my undergraduate degree in art history, I had never heard of CAA, nor did I yet know the value of professional associations. And that’s a scenario that I suspect many have encountered, which can be both intimidating and alienating to anyone, in any field. Those feelings are probably exacerbated even more for folks who don’t share the privilege or social capital that I have as a white woman who is not first generation.

But had I been introduced during my orientation to a badge like our Know Your Discipline badge or the Professional Associations badge, I would have felt more prepared to participate in what was likely a generative conversation. Through prompts and self-reflection questions, these and other badges in our program guide Ph.D. students at any stage through self-directed learning about a variety of topics, uncovering questions that they maybe didn’t even know to ask.

I’ll use teaching as an example, as it is the skill I talk to students about translating the most. While many Ph.D. students have the opportunity to teach during their degrees, I have found that most have difficulty explaining how the skills they build while teaching can translate to nonacademic roles, perhaps because so much jargon is tied to teaching, making it difficult to understand how it aligns to skills outside the classroom. And even once they understand how their skills might translate, many perceive a challenge in communicating these skills to future employers, given their lack of traditional work experience.

Digital badges can be especially effective here. A badge like Organizing and Leading Effective Team Meetings showcases how the skill of classroom management and lesson planning can translate directly into the ability to guide sometimes unruly conversations between diverse stakeholders with unclear objectives. Earning the badge itself is straightforward and gives learners the language to describe what they likely already know how to do. So explaining how the skill is applied would be simple for someone who has managed to coax a group of college students into a productive discussion of the week’s lecture during a 5:30 p.m. discussion section held on a Thursday in April.

Whenever I am going to write in a new genre, I start by finding examples of writing in that genre. If it were my first time writing a résumé, I would google “How to write a résumé” or “résumé examples.” This is what our Ph.D. students are doing as well. Some may also know to come to the webpage of our offices, or to their career development centers, but others may not. And so they spend the time sifting through the information on what makes a good résumé, which is not a good use of their limited time or energy.

Further, we want to make sure that they have access not just to resources, but to good resources. Our Writing a Résumé badge provides them with a curated version of the resources available, in a user-friendly, interactive format. While our office also offers hands-on résumé workshops and review sessions, our digital badges provide similar content asynchronously, so that there is always vetted guidance available.

Digital badges provide flexibility not available in a longer MOOC or certificate program. Like a MOOC, Ph.D.s can list their badges on a CV or résumé, but more important, they can share them on social media sites like LinkedIn with the metadata to show employers what was required in order to earn the badge. The value here is that unlike listing skills on your LinkedIn profile, verified issuers—in our case, Boston University— have issued the badges and made clear how the skill was demonstrated in the metadata.

Digital badges make available on demand, individualized learning experiences, fulfilling the needs of each learner to pursue skill building content they may not have accessed in their regular coursework or program requirements. Shareable, stackable badges can help them access vital information and language and showcase the myriad of transferable skills they have built beyond the research skills that employers might expect and understand.

This past year, with the support of a National Science Foundation Innovations in Graduate Education grant, we have partnered with current Ph.D.s in the biomedical field to integrate their knowledge directly into new badges. We will soon publish the first badges we created with our industry partners, which focus on financial literacy, design control processes, regulatory requirements and product development.

Building industry training directly into the badges provides students with the language and preparation to close the skills gap between academe and industry and make their transition into roles faster and easier. Industry colleagues have also shared that candidates who have badges have successfully leveraged these microcredentials to showcase how they are top candidates for a job by demonstrating how they would implement the skills built via the badges.

Today’s Ph.D. students’ career trajectories are less likely to resemble the somewhat linear path of their mentors and more likely to look like the rest of the labor market, with multiple twists and pivots as values and interests change and new skills are nurtured. As lifelong learners who have dedicated much more of their lives to education than a majority of the population, they are a prime audience for this type of continuous learning system that is customizable, based on their needs and interests, and provides recognition for their efforts.

I often get asked, “Why even earn a badge for something like writing a résumé? Isn’t it just like a digital sticker?” And the answer is of course, yes, it is like a digital sticker. But who doesn’t like getting a sticker? And after almost two years of running this program, it has become clear that earning the stickers is one of the most motivating parts, as it is also evidenced by significant research. Ph.D. students want stickers as markers of their achievements, just like everyone else.

So why digital badges? I think “why not?” is the better question.

Sasha Goldman is the director of Ph.D. resources at Boston University.

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You have /5 articles left.The digital badges provide an accessible, flexible, asynchronous vehicle for the dissemination of information related to the hidden curriculum of graduate school. Digital badges can be valuable tools for acknowledging the variety and extent of work done by Ph.D. students, beyond their degree requirements, and how that work explicitly contributes to building skills that will be valuable far beyond their Ph.D.Digital badges can provide a functional mechanism for distributing the large number of resources available to Ph.D. students for skill development and career preparation—without them having to spend their valuable time combing the internet to find it.Badges provide learners with the flexibility to customize learning based on their individual needs and interests, and to share their achievements.Employers and human resource professionals increasingly recognize badges, as they themselves are using microcredentials to upskill their employees and provide workforce training.straight to your inbox