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Meet Students Where They Are, Virtually: 7 Strategies for Professional Development in the Pandemic Age

By Melissa Bostrom and Hugh Crumley
Assistant Deans, Duke Graduate School


Virtual professional development tips

Each academic year, The Graduate School and its campus partners offer in-depth professional development programs such as the Certificate in College Teaching and Emerging Leaders Institute, as well as over 100 one-time workshops and events. Until last spring, nearly all these events and programs were offered face-to-face.

Then, the coronavirus arrived. As with all things in the age of COVID, we had to change the way we approach professional development for graduate students. Since early March, we have moved all of our professional development events—90 of them as of October 2—online.

When the pandemic first forced us online, we had few models for successful virtual programming. Working through a steep learning curve, we quickly adapted to meet students where they are: on Zoom. Here are some lessons we have learned along the way about delivering effective professional development online.

Address pressing issues

Fulfilling teaching or TA duties online in March and April revealed to many grad students that they had more to learn about online teaching. Recognizing this need, we partnered with Duke Learning Innovation to offer a four-part summer series called Online TA Skills, addressing everything from setting up classes for success online to wrapping up the semester.

The series was so well-attended in early summer—even before campus plans to offer a hybrid fall semester were announced—that we reprised it in July. We are offering the series again this fall, updated to reflect the growing resources and experience we have to share. The current series has evolved to include six workshops:

  1. Getting Started in the Virtual Classroom
  2. Getting Started with Sakai
  3. Using Zoom Breakout Rooms
  4. Effective Use of Video
  5. Facilitating Inclusive Online Discussions
  6. Wrapping Up the Term

Keep it short

We also heard from many students, particularly Ph.D. students who had been targeting tenure-track faculty jobs, that they needed to expand their range of career possibilities but weren’t sure how to do so.

In a face-to-face environment, we might have launched a series of 90-minute panel discussions featuring different employment sectors to provide insights and networking opportunities. Ninety minutes, however, are an eternity in a Zoom-based world, so we partnered with the Office of Postdoctoral Services to feature Ph.D. and postdoc alumni in a series called Alum Zooms: 5 Career Questions with a Duke Ph.D. By featuring just one alum per weekly session, we have been able to offer a quick hit of career exploration in just 30 minutes.

Add more structure

While free-flowing panel discussions worked well in a face-to-face context, we noticed that participants asked fewer questions on Zoom. The Alum Zooms series, then, focused on a set of five core questions that we asked every alum—including a burning question we knew would be on attendees’ minds: What’s the hiring outlook at your organization or in your sector? This structure gave participants the chance to formulate targeted follow-up questions that made the most of the limited time with busy professionals. In the fall, we began offering a new series called HR Zooms, conversations with human resources professionals, and kept the scaffolding of five key questions in place to guide these discussions as well.

Build in interaction

While we offered more structure, we balanced it with the use of breakout groups, which participants consistently identified as their favorite part of workshops in evaluations. For example, a workshop that had been offered in a 90-minute format in face-to-face times was broken up into three 45-minute Zoom-based topics—with a focus on subjects such as identifying transferable skills, or using LinkedIn and the Alumni Network—to offer 30 minutes of content with 15 minutes of small-group discussion for each.  Then we could spend time in breakout groups discussing pressing questions such as, “How can you build a professional network at a social distance?” The Online TA Skills workshop on Using Zoom Breakout Rooms assigned participants to breakout rooms to complete activities they might assign to their own students—which went a long way toward allowing participants to explore and find the value of using breakout rooms in their own teaching, according to the workshop evaluation feedback.

Feature students as experts

Much of the facilitation and presentation in the Online TA Skills Series and the Summer Doctoral Academy class on online teaching was led by a group of advanced Ph.D. candidates who shared the best practices they had developed for teaching online in their work with The Graduate School and Duke Learning Innovation through their Bass Digital Education Fellowships. By letting these students take the lead in the workshops, the student facilitators gained valuable teaching experience tailoring their pedagogy for a graduate student audience and the workshop participants benefited from the facilitators’ practical and hands-on experiences in building effective digital learning environments.

Engage alumni

We were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of Duke alumni for supporting current students. Alumni offered mentoring and job-shadowing opportunities to graduate students through Duke’s Keep Exploring summer initiative, and many also responded positively to students’ requests to interview them as part of our Alumni Profiles Series. At a time when students felt stresses from many directions, it was good to be able to show them the support of the Duke alumni community in action.

Create community

With disruptions seemingly everywhere, participating in professional development opportunities from their homes gave students the chance to reconnect with the broader Duke campus. As one participant in an Alum Zoom event noted, “The session was helpful, and it gave me a sense of Duke community I have been missing all this time!”

In evaluating the Online TA Skills workshop “Getting Started in the Virtual Classroom,” a graduate student wrote, “Honestly, it was a great session. The only thing I would change at this point would be us being able to be on campus.”


While virtual events don’t offer the same opportunities for networking (or free pizza) that we had face-to-face, they can still help students stay connected with the broader campus. Without the barriers of campus geography or weather that might keep attendees from joining, virtual offerings have allowed The Graduate School and our campus partners to meet students where they are and help them keep moving forward in their professional development goals—even when those goals may have shifted mightily in the space of a few months.