Course Redesign Boosts PhD Students' Professional Development

Drexel Engineering’s chemical and biological engineering (CBE) department within the College of Engineering is preparing its doctoral students for successful research careers through an innovative course makeover. CHE 590, Research Methods and Practices, has been reinvented from a standard technical writing class into a broader professional development experience

"As a PhD scientist, there are three main pillars to launching a successful career: understanding the fundamentals, critical thinking to generate new knowledge, and the ability to communicate about the work," said Megan Creighton, PhD, assistant professor of CBE, who helped create the course’s pilot syllabus last year. "This last skill often gets overlooked but is essential.”

The motivation behind overhauling CHE 590 was to address this critical gap in communication and interpersonal skills. "We started teaching 590 about nine years ago to teach technical writing, literature reviews, presentations, etc.," said Maureen Tang, PhD, associate professor of CBE and this year’s course coordinator. "When Dr. Creighton interviewed for her faculty position, she proposed a professional development class for PhD students based on her industry experience. We thought it was a great idea.”

The revamped course taps into the collective wisdom of the department's faculty, with professors sharing their specialized expertise across a wide range of professional skills. Assignments cover topics like writing effective emails, navigating difficult conversations, delivering impactful presentations, and understanding intellectual property.

Alex Ashley (PhD chemical engineering ’27), who participated in the pilot course, said that the skills taught in the class provide an invaluable foundation.

"CHE 590 stands out as an extraordinary introductory course, offering insights and skills critical for a flourishing PhD journey," Ashley said. He highlighted the diversity of faculty perspectives as enriching his understanding of research. Assignments like drafting a concise research proposal not only improved his technical writing abilities but also helped jumpstart his PhD candidacy

"The thoughtful structuring of CHE 590 marks it as a cornerstone in the academic development of Drexel's graduate students," Ashley added.

The course has been so successful within the CBE department that organizers are opening the course to PhD students in other disciplines. Interested students are encouraged to enroll starting in the spring term.