Completing a dissertation. Developing confidence as a teaching assistant, or new college faculty. Presenting research at a professional conference. Understanding scientific integrity. Publishing a first article. Competing for grant funding. These are all challenging, but critical competencies for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

To accelerate success in these areas, one innovative program at the UAB Graduate School offers academic support to graduate students and post-docs: The Professional Development Program (PDP). Founded in 1991, the graduate-level, academic and research-communications program turns 20 years old this fall, and much of the credit goes to its founder Julia S. Austin, PhD.

 A Signature Program at UAB

“UAB should be extremely proud of the program, and the leading role that Dr. Austin has played in its development,” says Bryan D. Noe, PhD, Dean of the UAB Graduate School.  “To succeed in the wide variety of careers that they now pursue, graduate students and postdoctoral trainees must acquire many skills that are not traditionally offered within the curricula of predoctoral training programs. Very few universities in the U.S. offer the wide range of additional opportunities for specialty skills development such as those provided by the UAB PDP.  The PDP is a signature program at UAB.”

The program emerged two decades ago out of the specific needs of a small group of international graduate students, but it now serves the needs of a much larger and more diverse group of graduate students and post-docs who seek advanced degrees, careers in research, and/or work as teaching assistants or faculty. In 1991, Austin, a rhetoric and composition specialist with training in ESL, was the Director of English as a Second Language (ESL) when she noticed that 40 percent of her international students in the undergraduate ESL classes were graduate students.

Meanwhile, Terry L. Hickey, PhD, then UAB’s Graduate Dean, also recognized an urgent need for instructional support to the growing number of international graduate students in his field. He saw a proposal that Austin had written for a special task force and encouraged her to write a Scientific Communications Program for his students.  Hickey then agreed to finance the program for two years, housing it in the office of the Vice President for Health Affairs.

Optimal Learning for Graduate Students & Post Docs

 “The immediate response was huge. We tapped into a lot of pent-up need,” Austin recalls. “The next semester, we offered an oral communication course on Saturdays. After a needs assessment with graduate faculty in the Joint Health Sciences, we began offering graduate students individualized coaching in academic and research writing.”

From the beginning, Austin worked with faculty to design elective academic and research-communication courses, for credit, on a pass/no-pass basis, with the goal of creating an optimal learning environment for graduate level professional support. “An important part of the pedagogy includes the peer mentoring, the interdisciplinary discussions of professional practice, and the research-oriented focus for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, whose needs are very different from those of undergraduate students.”

Soon, American graduate students began asking for similar services that were being offered international graduate students. “Many graduate students in science, technology, engineering, math, or STEM disciplines, as well as health careers, are masters in their core studies, but simply have not had instruction and experience in academic writing, publishing, and presenting,” says Austin. “For these students, a little bit of instruction from us goes a long way. We just help them speed time to degree and boost research productivity.”

 In addition, other graduate students in professional schools, such as nursing or education, are returning to school after 10 or 20 years in the workforce, she added. “It’s been a long time since they have written a research paper, and they may have never written one for publication. Consider a nurse who is accustomed to writing up patient reports, or teachers, who are used to writing lesson plans. For some of these students, the idea of preparing a 200-page scholarly project, or dissertation study, to publication standards can seem almost impossible, at first. That is why our focus was and always has been on professional development in academic and research communications.”

“A National Model” for Adding Value

With funding from tuition and support from the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice President of Health Affairs, Austin nurtured the program. In 1993, with Hickey’s support, she moved to office space in the Lister Hill Library of Health Sciences to make the program more accessible to graduate students from across campus. During this time, Dr. Joan F. Lorden, then Dean of the Graduate School, had been getting requests from graduate students and faculty for support in teaching and grant writing, in addition to enhanced communication offerings. Lorden found out about an innovative program at the University of Pittsburgh and jumped at a chance to participate in a long-term, “survival skills” grant to help graduate students develop professionally through Austin’s structure and services.

Observes Lorden today: “Under Julia’s direction, the initiative evolved quickly into a full-fledged professional development program in which the Graduate School took the lead in providing an essential function for the campus and becoming a national model for how graduate schools could add value to virtually every program.  As someone who hires a large number of faculty, I now see even more clearly how important the program is.  We do a lot of on-the-job training for newly minted PhDs who haven’t had the benefit of such a program.”

In early 1995, with Lorden’s support, Austin moved her offices to the UAB Graduate School, where the program resides today. Over the years, new courses were gradually added, including Teaching at the College Level and Beyond, Fellowship Writing, Preparing TAs to be Effective Teachers, Presentation and Discussion Skills, and, more recently, Developing a Teaching Portfolio, and Research Writing and Publishing.  With expanded offerings, the program’s name was changed from Scientific Communications to Professional Development. 

In 2010, the PDP launched online sections of its most popular graduate elective, Writing and Reviewing Research, and it now offers special sections of this course tailored for nurses and public health students. It also recently developed two new courses, Dissertation Strategies and Successful Dissertation Writing, which Austin says helps dissertation writers operationalize their goals and be accountable for their writing progress.

Becoming Writers, Teachers, & Grant Awardees

As for its impact on UAB graduate students, post-docs and professional research or teaching employees (who also frequently take the courses), recent feedback and comments say it all.

Among those taking PDP courses is Jody Gilchrist, RN, MSN, ACNP-BC, CRNP, and an instructor in the School of Nursing, who took the online section of Writing and Reviewing Research : “I learned so much in this course. . . [It] is the first course I have taken in several years. I cannot thank you enough for helping me to ‘bridge’ back into school!”

Adds John Ruby, DMD, PhD, Professor of Pediatric Dentistry: “Julia Austin’s Professional Development Program is why UAB is a great place to be for those who realize the necessity of writing well. Writing is hard, and clarity is difficult to find. Julia has helped our pediatric dental residents and also helped me become the writers we aspire to be.”

States Yogesh Vohra, PhD, Profess of Physics, Director, UAB Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration (CNMB), and Director, Physics Graduate Program: “GRD 715--Preparing TAs to be Effective Teachers is a required course for all incoming physics graduate students. It has prepared them to be an effective communicator in recitation sections for physics under-graduates as well as managing large undergraduate laboratory sections. Also, assessment of teaching skills prepares students to be ready and give them a chance for self improvement. This training course is particularly important for undergraduates who enter graduate program without a prior teaching experience.”

Says Lisa M. Schwiebert, PhD, Associate Professor of Physiology and Biophysics and Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Education: “Through the Professional Development Program, Julia has had a significant and lasting impact on the education of postdoctoral scholars. In particular, her dedication and tireless efforts in the areas of teaching and grant writing have enhanced the training of many post-docs over the years.”

Supporting Authorship Seminars & Integrity Grants

Today, in addition to courses and workshops, Austin and her team offer a series of upon-request authorship ethics seminars to faculty and students in support of UAB’s goal of responsible conduct of research. They are currently working with Jeffrey Engler, PhD and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the UAB Graduate School, and Principal Investigator for the Council of Graduate School’s national Project for Scholarly Integrity (PSI) grant, and Tracey Baker, PhD in UAB’s Department of English, to develop a research-based authorship website for students who seek to write and publish their work.

The PDP staff also supports the Graduate School on other UAB grant projects aimed at recruiting and developing the brightest graduate students, including McNair, PREP, and MERIT Scholars, says Engler. “The PDP staff support all of the programs that help promote diversity in our student population.  They provide strategies and tools that help students develop a more efficient and focused presentation and writing style for the research they do in graduate school.  This is key to boosting our overall research productivity.”

To learn more about elective courses and workshops this fall, see the Professional Development Program’s offerings at