“Exciting. Thrilling. Vibrant.” That’s how UBC PhD student Andrew Pilliar describes what it feels like (or could feel like) doing PhD research. Contrary to what Aly Kamadia describes in his critique of doctoral education (“A PhD is not all it’s chalked up to be”, Opinion, Dec. 23), the PhD educational experience for the vast majority of doctoral students is not defined by “monstrous” exams, poverty, and a “treacherous” career path. The PhD has not solely been about “training students for professorships” for many years, nor is there anything “dismal” about a professorial employment rate of 30 per cent for UBC PhD graduates.
PhD education is about the formation of scholars able to contribute to society by building upon a profound breadth and depth of knowledge through rigorous and creative inquiry and action. Yes, many PhD graduates today are professors and other staff in the academy, but among the recent UBC PhD grads are also museum curators, consultants to the UN and foreign governments, industrial scientists, CEOs of startups, innovators in government, and NGO researchers and analysts. They make policy, change organizations, inspire humans, discover new genes, invent green energy technologies, and implement improvements in health care.
How important is a PhD for these jobs and activities? While it’s not essential for many of them, doctoral education provides the framework, mentorship, experience, and rigorous assessment that help to ensure the intellectual development that brings depth, nuance, critical thinking, and creativity to these jobs and careers. And graduates are happy in them — recent surveys have revealed that PhD graduates in non-academic careers are as satisfied, if not more so, than those in professorial careers. PhD graduates both inside and outside the academy earn higher salaries than those with less education, and their lifetime earnings more than make up for the lean years in graduate school.
Universities are slowly, but continuously, enhancing students’ preparation for these diverse career outcomes. For the past 10-15 years, most universities with doctoral programs have been offering professional development opportunities to enhance skills needed for careers both inside and outside the university. The core of doctoral education, though — students’ research and the thesis describing that work — has remained relatively constant. Nevertheless, change is on the horizon. After several years of conversation across North America and beyond, UBC has taken a leadership role in experimenting with broadened conceptions of PhD research and theses that take into account the many dimensions of scholarship our graduates will engage in after graduation. The flagship program of this rethinking is the UBC Public Scholars Initiative (www.grad.ubc.ca/psi), launched in 2015, which encourages and supports doctoral students from all disciplines to break through some of the traditional restrictions of thesis work — to collaborate with partners outside the university, to work on scholarly projects that contribute to the public good, to develop and incorporate into their theses a diversity of scholarly tools and outputs, including public communication material, policy papers, websites, creative works, and business plans. At the same time, these students’ theses have to meet the highest standards of scholarly rigour — and they have done so; ten of these students have successfully defended their theses and have graduated.
Among the 115 students who have participated in the Public Scholars Initiative so far are Ajay, who is creating a documentary film about the Vancouver Punjabi community as the centrepiece of his thesis; Sarah, who collaborated with health authorities, health professionals, and patients to develop a policy brief aimed at reducing Caesarean section births (many of the recommendations of which have already been implemented); and Janna, who is working with composites manufacturing companies to systematically reduce the gap between research in materials science and commercial applications, and in the process helping local industry remain in Canada. The career prospects for these intelligent, creative, and engaged students are particularly bright and broad.
Faculty and graduate students across the country have been consulted about these types of changes over the past year through an initiative of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, and there is definite interest and excitement. As work on broadened conceptions of doctoral education continues in the years to come, students like Andrew, Ajay, Sarah, and Janna are helping to pave the way.