24 / www.universityaffairs.ca / January 2016
“It’s important for the students to have
a more concrete idea of what is possible
and what their peers are doing with
ships, publishable articles, policy papers or patents. He realizes the potential for debate this option stirs up: “Are they the same kind of program? I’m
not sure. It’s a hanging question that remains to be solved,” he says.
Even for those who support switching up the dissertation for other
forms, the idea of a two-track PhD may take it too far. “I’m wary of suggesting we should have academic PhDs versus alt-ac PhDs because I don’t
think it’s fair to ask students to self-select before they’ve become PhDs,”
says Frédéric Bouchard, a professor of philosophy and director of the
Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie at
Université de Montréal. Western’s Mr. Lambier agrees: “I would be very
suspicious of creating a PhD A and a PhD B. If somebody had to identify
right from the get-go that to do PhD B means you’re off the tenure track,
I think it’d be very discouraging and I don’t think it would take,” he says.
One problem with these theoretical discussions is that they’re just
that – theoretical. Meanwhile, after a strategic review in 2005, the University of Saskatchewan’s history department eliminated its traditional first
year of coursework in favour of directing doctoral students straight into
comprehensive exams (in a major and two minor fields) on set dates early
on in year two. The program also instituted mandatory biweekly meetings
with supervisors, guaranteed five-year funding, and teaching fellowships
to give students experience as course directors. Martha Smith-Norris, director of graduate studies in the department, says the change was generally well received. “I think overall people prefer the more efficient process,
and the fact that now statistically we can show that our students are finishing on average around six years,” she says.
Dr. Smith-Norris also began to track her history PhDs post-gradua-tion, yet another task that many vow to implement but have yet to start
(among the exceptions are UBC and Concordia University, and at a national level there is a new project that emerged from the McGill conference called TRaCE, which will track PhDs outside academia and organize
them into a network). Tracking students all the way back from 1990, Dr.
Smith-Norris found that of 29 PhD students who graduated, nine had academic jobs, three had senior administrative jobs at the university, and four
are postdocs. Others went on to get jobs at NGOs, to do other professional
degrees, or into a combination of sessional and writing work.
In total, there were 72 students who entered the program since 1990
(which historically admitted one to two per year and after its redesign
admitted around five per year), of which 32 are currently still completing
their degrees. Dr. Smith-Norris says tracking the graduates is fairly la-
bour-intensive, using digital “trails” such as online searches and LinkedIn
profiles in addition to direct contact. However, she believes the results
have the potential to inspire her students to persevere with the program.
“It’s important for the students to have a more concrete idea of what is
possible and what their peers are doing with their degrees,” she says.
To increase the professional development aspect of the PhD, some
departments are starting to invite consultants like Anne Krook to help
doctoral candidates to prepare for non-academic job searches. (Dr. Krook wrote an essay on the subject, “Mobilizing the humanities for diverse
careers,” for University Affairs published last June). Dr. Krook shared her
own experience as a case study: denied tenure, she reinvented herself as
a business communications professional and consultant, starting with a
position at Amazon.
Her experience suggests that perhaps one of the most helpful changes
to the PhD is one that costs very little: encouraging students to see the
world outside the academy as intellectually stimulating. “Frankly, Amazon was the most intellectually demanding place I ever worked. I didn’t
find it less demanding than academics. I did not turn off my brain when I
stopped being a faculty member,” she says.
Dr. Bouchard at U de Montréal agrees: “We easily fall into this my-
thology of universities that they are the only place where breakthroughs
happen. But everyone outside of universities knows there are lots of peo-
ple doing highly innovative things.”
As for Ms. Whillans at UBC, she says that opening up her PhD has
“definitely broadened my horizons and it’s made me feel a little bit better
about my prospects when I graduate. Actually working with these indus-
try and government contacts has made me realize that the skills that we’re
gaining in a graduate program are broader than we often think.”
This is the second of a two-part series by Suzanne Bowness examining PhD programs.
The first instalment, “Awakening to alt-ac careers,” appeared in the October 2015 issue.