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Careers for PhDs a big topic at this year’s Congress

BY NATALIE SAMSON | JUN 04 2014

Humanities and social sciences graduate programs, their faculty members and administrators, aren’t doing enough to prepare students for life post-PhD. That was one message to come out of this year’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, hosted at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., from May 24 to 30.

A four-person panel representing the Future of Graduate Training in the Humanities Project, sponsored by several partners including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, discussed its White Paper on the Future of the PhD in Humanities, published late last year. The report argues for rethinking the purpose of graduate education, particularly in the humanities, to better prepare students for careers in fields other than academia. The report offers seven recommendations for reforming doctoral programs, including allowing for a “coherent ensemble of projects” as an alternative to the traditional dissertation, cutting PhD programs down to a five-year maximum, and recruiting well-rounded candidates who may have stated ambitions outside higher education. (The U.S.-based Modern Language Association published a similar report after a two-year investigation into doctoral education. Sidonie Smith, director of the Institute of the Humanities at the University of Michigan and a past president of the MLA, is listed as a co-author on both reports.)

The group behind the Canadian project found that 50 percent of PhD candidates leave their programs without completing the degree. Of those who do finish after the average six to seven years, many don’t go on to faculty positions. “Up to 90 percent of people in doctoral programs don’t achieve what the program sets out to do,” said co-author Leigh Yetter, executive director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas at McGill University.

While the academic job prospects are bleak, the situation isn’t much brighter for those who do secure academic work. At 34 years-old, the average post-doc researcher in Canada earns less than $45,000 without health benefits. Paulina Mickiewicz, who recently defended her dissertation at McGill, noted that as the jobs and resources become scarcer, the competition has dramatically increased. Today, a book-ready dissertation, publication in prominent journals, and significant teaching and research experience are all considered essential to sessional and adjunct positions. “What used to be the requirements for tenure are the requirements for a job interview,” she said.

The group doesn’t recommend cutting admissions numbers or the number of doctoral programs in Canada. “Cutting programs isn’t the answer because it erodes the strength of the discipline,” said Paul Yachnin, an English professor and director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas at McGill. “We have too many PhDs [only] if we believe academic careers are the point of the PhD,” he said.

In addition to recommending curriculum change, the report underlines that these changes will only be possible if each institution first commits to a change in culture. In practical terms this means ending the practice of measuring program success by the number of graduates in academic careers – a measuring tool employed both by academic departments and governments. It also means using different language to discuss post-PhD work. The transition to a non-academic job shouldn’t be considered “giving up,” but the next step of a career and life, said Dr. Mickiewicz.

This point about language was revisited by Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University, during a separate panel on professional skills development for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. She said that we shouldn’t talk about academic work as Plan A and employment outside the university as Plan B, but rather both should be presented as equally desirable and worth aspiring to.

Valerie Walker, senior policy analyst at Mitacs, presented data during the panel that further emphasized the need for honest communication with graduate students about professionalization. According to a 2013 survey of 1,830 Canadian postdoctoral researchers, 81 percent of respondents started their graduate education with the goal of becoming a faculty member. By the time they reached their postdoc positions, 69 percent named research faculty as their career goal. When it comes to postdocs working in the humanities and social sciences, those numbers are 91 percent and 82 percent. In these latter disciplines in particular, “academic tunnel vision persists,” Dr. Walker said.

Dr. Sekuler said Canadian universities are beginning to better address the professional needs of graduate students with such tools as the forthcoming mygradskills.com. Developed by the Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills (McMaster University, Queen’s University, Western University, University of Waterloo, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto and University of Guelph), the website will be home to self-directed modules on topics like leadership and management, professional communication, teaching dossiers, resumé writing and job searching. When it launches in September, the online resources will be free to grad students at Ontario universities.

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