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Universities urged to develop new models of PhD study

Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president at McMaster University, at Congress 2014 in Toronto Friday.

If the ambition of every species is to perpetuate itself, then the academy is endangered.

The skills taught to graduate students – sorting, summarizing and presenting information, creativity, and independence – are in high demand. But they are more likely to be used in jobs other than teaching. Several panels at this week's Congress 2014 heard that two-thirds of PhD graduates will not become professors, heading instead to government or industry. If these students are to market their skills successfully to private sector employers, the current generation of professors has to be persuaded there is no shame if their students do not turn out to be profs.

Participants said that to encourage that shift, universities must come up with new models of PhD study, from including multimedia components to emphasizing collaboration and experiential learning alongside traditional study.

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"It's not just a problem of academic placements, it's a problem of … being closed-minded over what training might be. It's a missed opportunity for the academy," said Leigh Yetter, one of the authors of a white paper presented at the gathering of the humanities and social sciences and the executive director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas at McGill University.

Newly minted PhDs and faculty comfortable talking over social media have helped the discussion of how to train the next generation take off, said Allison Sekuler, the associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University. She traces the attention to graduate studies to a cartoon that went viral a few years ago – "So you want to get a PhD in the humanities" – in which a stubborn grad student insists she will become a professor regardless of the lack of jobs.

Career concerns may have been prominent, but the main business of Congress, where more than 6,000 academics gathered this week on the grounds of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., was still to be a marketplace of ideas. It's where faculty and graduate students try out new hypotheses and hope the audience will identify gaps in the research before they submit it to a scholarly journal.

Conversations were intense regardless of the subject – what accounts for how evangelical churches work with immigrant and refugee communities; are books written by James Patterson's co-authors more similar to each other than to the bestsellers he has written alone, for example. Debates over the significance of correlations continued at the beer tent.

Every field had its own celebration. On Monday, a small band of specialists in Nordic countries and arts talked Ibsen over Niagara wine. "We don't have a lot of Scandinavian majors, but courses on myths are very popular," said Ingrid K. Urberg, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus.

Canadian scholars are better at leaving their research cloisters than their U.S. counterparts, said Mervyn Horgan, a sociologist at the University of Guelph. At the U.S. sociological association conference, thousands rather than hundreds turn up and all are jockeying for status. "They're always looking at your badge to see if your university is prestigious enough to talk to you," Dr. Horgan said.

Along with networking among faculty and grad students, Congress bills itself as a public festival of ideas with lectures on education, immigration and health among other events. This year, that included a "MakerBus," a school bus that a group of students from Western University bought for $1,900 from a junkyard and converted into a mobile technology classroom. The bus was open to visitors, and featured 3-D printers, crafts from recycled technology hardware and chats about how to do tech education. Part of the point of the bus is to engage with non-academics and show kids and adults that being a scholar can happen outside a library, said Beth Compton, one of the founders of the bus and a PhD student in archeology at Western.

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The bus is not part of their dissertation work, and Ms. Compton and her colleagues said they are trying not to worry about jobs after graduation.

It is these types of students, who may leave after they finish rather than go into teaching, that universities should be asking for advice on how to do graduate studies, Dr. Yetter said. "It's a missed opportunity for universities not to use these people, to just say goodbye at the end of their studies."

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