Feature: Preparing trainees for life after graduation

Thomas Drysdale, PhD, says it was all about the right people at the right time. When considering the role of Associate Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, he knew he had the experience to understand the needs of graduate trainees and postdoctoral fellows, and the ideas to help improve their experience.

He served as the Director of the Graduate Program in Developmental Biology from 2006-2009. From 2016-2018, he served as the Chair of the Graduate Studies Committee in Physiology and Pharmacology. Throughout his career, he developed curricula for several graduate courses, supervised students and sat on more than 100 graduate student committees.

Drysdale says it was his confidence in the dedication and approach of the decanal team, administrative staff and colleagues at Western’s School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS) that encouraged him to undertake the portfolio.

What does your role as the Associate Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies entail?

I see myself as the communications conduit between the graduate trainees and postdoctoral fellows, and the School’s administration. I try to communicate the administration’s ideas as best I can, and if the trainees have any issues or questions, I am the person they can contact to express their opinion or seek guidance.

I have an open-door policy for trainees if they want to talk to me, or if they have an idea that they think the faculty should look at. I’m here to try to make their experience as best as possible.

Coming into this role, what are your priorities for the portfolio?

Many trainees’ main concern is what they are going to do after graduation. I’m trying to put in place initiatives that will ensure that our trainees are well informed about the possibilities after graduation, and to prepare them the best we can.

We’ve created a LinkedIn group as a communications portal where graduates who have gone on to pursue interesting careers can connect with current trainees. Using this group as a basis, we’re also launching a virtual speaking event series featuring alumni.

I would love to be able to tell trainees how to look for a job in industry, but I’ve never had a job in industry. My experience alone is not enough, but our alumni have gone out and done it. All of the alumni we’ve engaged with so far have been enthusiastic and encouraged trainees to keep in touch, so it is looking like we’re developing a network that can really help.

What are the unique strengths of the graduate and postdoctoral programs at the School?

We have a good support network for graduate trainees and postdoctoral fellows. The program leaders and administrators recognize their value and they really care for trainees. We also take a hands-on role in developing trainees as people and professionals, not just in the research context.

Throughout the years, you’ve undertaken several leadership positions at the School involved with graduate education. Why is this portfolio important to you?

Graduate trainees and postdoctoral fellows are a quiet group, but they’re essential to the activities of the School. I’m a principal investigator as well as the Associate Dean, but when was the last time I did an experiment? Graduate trainees are completing experiments all the time, and that reflects on me. They are the research at this institution.

What made me want to take this position was the team already in place, both at the Dean’s Office and at SGPS.

In your opinion, what makes an excellent graduate supervisor? How should supervisors help facilitate their trainees’ success?

A supervisor-student relationship is a very complex one. A supervisor that has empathy for their trainees, that understands what motivates them, will be successful.

When I was a graduate student, I had a lot of ideas and supervisors who were willing to indulge me and give me the freedom to try. I appreciated that, and that’s what made it a great experience for me. Some trainees may require a little more guidance to excel, with others you probably just need to give them the key to the door. A supervisor that can understand the person and come to a conclusion about what level of supervision and guidance they need, is a good supervisor.