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Sarah Saska, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario, took it upon her self to restructure her degree. TORONTO: MAY 15, 2015 - Sarah Saska, a PhD. candidate and cofounder of Feminuity, poses for a photograph in the financial district in Toronto on Friday, May 15, 2015. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

How many PhDs does it take to figure out if the PhD degree should survive? Hundreds.

That's the number of academics, current and aspiring, attending a conference at Montreal's McGill University this week that will propose transforming graduate school.

"Maybe 15 to 20 per cent of people who enter PhDs get full-time academic work. That's a remarkably poor showing. … It means that students who complete PhDs and put themselves on the academic job market and don't get academic jobs feel like failures," said Paul Yachnin, the director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, which organized the event.

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The Shakespeare specialist says those numbers show that universities must prepare students for life outside the ivory tower.

That could mean everything from offering internships for budding philosophers to encouraging working in teams and rethinking some of the requirements of a doctoral degree.

Students aren't waiting to take action. Sarah Saska, a PhD student in the department of women's studies and feminist research at the University of Western Ontario in London, restructured her own degree.

"I knew that I never wanted to become a professor, that I wanted to leverage research into the real world. … I put out a call to community groups and non-profits: 'Here are my areas of interest. Here are my skills. I'm offering 3,500 hours of research,'" she said.

The Match, Canada's international women's granting fund, took her up on it, and Ms. Saska went on to win research grants for her project.

"I went outside of [the university]. I was out there hustling, doing things in very unorthodox ways. I took a very entrepreneurial approach to the PhD."

This month, Ms. Saska, who has started a company that looks at the impact of gender on social innovation, will be a panelist at Western on careers outside the academy.

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Institutions are still grappling with the idea that unconventional approaches can lead to original scholarship, said Alejandro Adem, the CEO of Mitacs, a national not-for-profit that funds internships for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. Mitacs awarded Ms. Saska two grants.

"Many of our departments have emphasized the culture of pure research and teaching, so it is hard to get attention and support to pursue these experiential opportunities," Dr. Adem said.

A substantial number of students who pursue PhDs are not planning on a life of scholarship. Half of students with an MA who were polled in Statistics Canada's National Graduates Survey said they continue with doctoral courses because they want to become professors. But one-quarter are looking for jobs outside universities, and one in six want to start their own business.

Years inside the system may have made some academics unaware of how student aspirations – and the labour market – have changed, said Sheila Embleton, a linguistics professor at York University and a former vice-president at the university.

"Professors are skeptical. They don't believe that it's really, really bad. They think it's pretty bad. But everyone thinks their people will make it through," Dr. Embleton said.

Some professors have seen the statistics play out among their own students and have more radical recommendations. Earlier this month, University of Ottawa philosophy professor Paul Forster wrote an essay in University Affairs magazine arguing for a revolution, not reform. Shrink graduate studies, he said.

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"Big programs are seen as good programs. I'm not sure that's true," he said.

Dr. Forster says he was a bit taken aback by the online debate the essay provoked. "I don't think of myself as a public intellectual," he said.

McGill's Dr. Yachnin believes change will happen incrementally. He plans to bring PhD graduates who are working outside academia back to the McGill campus and other schools to co-teach courses for a week or two.

"It's non-confrontational. It's seeding the academic community with people who have their roots in the academic community in order to change it."

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