Five Lessons on Rethinking the PhD

The Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) brought together faculty, staff, and students to continue the conversation on the future of the PhD, and how we can better prepare ourselves for it. Here are some takeaways.

Efe Peker, Coordinator of UBC's Public Scholars Initiative

"A real change is needed in the structure of the PhD to preserve and strengthen its core values". This was the central message of the keynote address by Louise Dandurand at the 53rd Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS).

Dandurand's call was, in fact, the main theme of the 2015 CAGS Conference, Rethinking the PhD, which took place in Calgary on 30 October-1 November. Continuing the previous year's theme with the same title, the conference (#cags53) convened faculty, deans, managers, coordinators, staff, and (of course) students involved in graduate studies across Canada.

Along with colleagues from UBC's Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies team, I was lucky to attend the conference and join the lively debate on the future of the PhD. Here are five takeaways from these conversations (although this is by no means an exhaustive list):

1. Getting real: alt-acs are not alt-acs!

Despite the lack of agreement on its exact meaning, the term "alt-ac" is widely used today to refer to "alternative" careers in and beyond academia. A widely-quoted statistic demonstrates that at least 75% of PhD holders in Canada are employed in "alt-ac" careers (that is, they're not full-time or part-time professors).

Then here's the burning question: does it make sense to call three-quarters of a population "alternative"? Arguing that it doesn't, Alexandre Lehmann of McGill University made a call to stop talking about the road more travelled as the "alternate option" -because this is now the norm!

Lehmann's plea was received well by the participants, as no discussion on the future of the PhD can turn a blind eye to the broader career pathways of graduates.


2.Advancing professional development

If "alt-acs" are the norm, then how are universities preparing PhD students for the non-academic world? For more than a decade, professional development programs have been the dominant response to this question (such as UBC's very own Graduate Pathways to Success).

The significance of professional development (PD) was highlighted throughout the conference, with suggestions on furthering its agenda. Heather Zwicker, for instance, talked about how they're planning to make professional and individual development programs a required component of the PhD at the University of Alberta.

It has been suggested that the future of PD lies in changing the curriculum to integrate broader career perspectives into the PhD experience itself -including coursework, supervision, milestones, dissertation, and assessment procedures.

Suzanne Ortega, President of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), summed it up in these words: "we generally think of professional development as an add-on; we must think of better ways to integrate it meaningfully into the PhD".

UBC's Public Scholars Initiative was mentioned here as a pilot program that seeks to take a step in this direction.


3.Rethinking the dissertation

When it comes to integrating novel forms of scholarship into the PhD, the dissertation stands out as the toughest nut to crack. Speaking on the topic, Anthony Paré of UBC put forward that a radical change is needed in the format of the traditional dissertation.

Referring to the 2013 McGill White Paper on the Future of Humanities, Paré held that "workshop", "applied", and "portfolio" dissertation formats may hold the key to expanding PhD horizons, which allow for various combinations that bring together novel scholarly artifacts and public collaborations.

It goes without saying that such new dissertation pathways require collective, diverse, and novel assessment mechanisms for the wide variety of scholarly activities that students pursue.


4. Coaching PhD Students

What can PhD students do to make the best out of their graduate school experience and prepare themselves for broader careers? Richard Wiggers of HEQCO (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) offered a series of tips:

  • If possible, spend some time on non-academic activities (such as part-time work, volunteering)
  • Nurture a network of contacts and friends outside of your academic circle
  • Know that great opportunities don’t always present themselves at the most convenient times
  • Your faculty advisor may not always have the best advice (about the non-academic world)

In addition to these, the centrality of grad student health and wellbeing was emphasized in various sessions, especially through exciting initiatives such as Queen's University's award-winning Habitat program, providing resources for living and staying well in grad school.


5.Recognising the inherent value of the PhD

Finally, despite the potential anxiety caused by the novel pathways and transformations that PhD programs are experiencing, #cags53 maintained an overall optimistic outlook highlighting the opportunities this process engenders.

Suzanne Ortega noted that there is no need for pessimism: "PhDs are hired everywhere because a PhD is more than the sum of its parts". Therefore, the main focus of faculty and staff should be what PhD students "could be, not what they should be". It's, after all, thanks to graduate research that we maintain Canada as a "society of knowledge".

As Louise Dandurand mentioned in her address, rethinking the PhD is ultimately about "preserving and strengthening the core values of the PhD". Isn't this what brought most of us to graduate school in the first place?


All in all, #cags53 not only confirmed the currents of change in graduate education, but it continued to serve as one of the significant venues where these currents are analysed, discussed, and acted on.

We may indeed be at an exciting turning point in the history of doctoral education.


Tuesday, 19 January 2016