If you could spend the next few years exploring one issue in depth or grappling with one problem that you believe is of critical importance to our planet, what would it be?
It's a pretty daunting question. But that's essentially the choice facing students embarking on post-graduate research. Their answers may tell us a lot about the changing nature of university education, and what talented young people see as the key issues facing our society now and in the future.
One interesting source of insight comes from data on scholarships and fellowships awarded by Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). SSHRC awards approximately 3000 masters, doctoral and post-doctoral awards annually, and tracks students' choices in terms of key discipline and subject of research.
These aren't just any students. After a rigorous selection process, SSHRC funds only about 20 per cent of applicants, or 5 per cent of all graduate students enrolled in the social sciences and humanities at Canadian universities. So by all accounts, these are among the best and brightest in their fields, representing opinion leaders of tomorrow. They don't span all fields – students in the natural sciences and engineering, or those engaged in health-related studies, are funded separately by other federal granting agencies – but they do represent a wide range of disciplines, from accounting to anthropology. And since the awards are open to any subject or topic, they reflect students' views of the most relevant and promising areas of research. So what are they choosing?
The distribution of awards reflects some of the key changes at work in academia. While familiar disciplines like psychology, literature or history still represent the largest share of awards, much of the growth is in newer, cross-disciplinary fields like communications and media studies, or urban, regional and environmental studies. Also showing big gains are the professional programs (law, education, social work, management) and fine arts, all of which have become increasingly research–intensive in recent years.
In terms of subject matter, students appear comfortable straying beyond the boundaries of their home disciplines. Thus, for example, while the number of awards in the disciplines of management or fine arts has increased, the number of awardees indicating that their research topic is primarily related to management or to arts and culture is actually falling. Students are using a variety of disciplinary or cross-disciplinary tools to approach complex issues – whether it's the fine arts major studying the political role of Iranian cinema, or the management student exploring First Nations governance – and in the process are helping to stretch and extend the range of scholarship in their chosen fields.
Perhaps not surprisingly, social and environmental issues are at the heart of many students' research: social development and welfare, law and justice, indigenous people, environmental sustainability and gender issues are among the top choices for research topics.
There is also a growing international orientation to students' choices, with research on international relations, development and trade, and immigration growing rapidly. Students appear to have an increasingly global outlook, and the subjects they are exploring blur the boundaries between domestic and international concerns.
That's not to say that there isn't some parochialism at work as well. There's a strong focus on issues directly facing young people, with increasing numbers of students choosing to study youth themselves. Employment and labour, education, the family, violence – these are all issues that top students see as increasingly important to their future, and the future of the country as well. Through its Imagining Canada's Future Initiative, SSHRC is asking students to help identify possible future challenges for Canada in a global context likely to emerge in five, 10 and 20 years. The survey is accessible here. Their feedback is providing further insight into the issues that matter to them.
Perhaps the biggest unknown in all of this is why students make the choices they do. Clearly, current events play a key role: To take just one example, awards focused on financial and monetary systems doubled in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Beyond this, there is almost certainly a complex mix of expected economic returns, individual aptitudes and personal characteristics at play. But there's also that irresistible and highly personal attraction to the one question that motivates and excites a promising young mind.
As Canada nears 150, we should pay attention to what students' preferences are telling us about the critical issues that may face us in the decades ahead,
Brent Herbert-Copley is vice-president, Research Capacity, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.
Fastest growing disciplines
Urban and regional studies
Fastest growing research areas
Social development and welfare
Employment and labour
Environment and sustainability
International relations, development and trade
Law and justice
(Growth in number of SSHRC awards to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, 2005/07 to 2010/12.)