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The Globe and Mail

Graduate students need preparation for life outside university

Graham Carr is vice-president, Research and Graduate Studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

The Globe and Mail series, Our Time to Lead: Re: education, identified a multitude of issues that go to the core of what university education is, and should become, for the 21 st century. But what role will graduate studies play? The discussion so far has been driven by the impulse to know whether the nature and quality of undergraduate education prepares students adequately to engage with the world and find their place as productive citizens. These questions matter to society as a whole, but also have a direct impact on university professors, employers and the majority of young Canadians who are, or will soon become, postsecondary students themselves.

If Canadians are really intent on positioning our country at the leading edge of education innovation, we also need to focus on the roughly 45,000 students per year who receive graduate degrees. Graduate education is key to developing the next generation of knowledge-leaders who have the research skills and critical thinking required to understand and solve complex problems.

The question is how can we best align the training and potential of these future leaders with rapidly changing societal needs and ever-evolving challenges in the workplace?

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Here's what I propose:

1. Universities should systematically equip graduate students with professional skills to help facilitate their transition to various career sectors.

Regardless of their field of expertise, successful grad students require "soft skillls" to build careers and connect to their future. Virtually every university offers workshops on how to network and team-build, master new digital and information tools, communicate effectively, or manage intellectual property. And yet, these services are typically undersubscribed because they aren't part of a coherent package targeted to the needs of graduate students. The problem is one of supply, not demand. This was driven home at our university this past year when 4,100 students registered for nearly 200 free workshops organized under the banner of our new GradProSkills program.

2. Universities should make a strong commitment to internationalization

Communications technology has transformed knowledge and research networks. The Internet provides the most obvious illustration of how expertise now circulates across borders and institutional structures. This mobility is also manifest in a physical sense. In Europe, students enjoy a growing ease of internal mobility while new powerhouse countries such as Brazil and China are sending students abroad in astonishing numbers.

As the workplace of tomorrow becomes increasingly global, there will be a premium on cross-cultural experience and adaptability. Providing our graduate students with opportunities to study and train abroad will better position them for success.

3. Universities should make the form and content of graduate programs more flexible

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The evolving knowledge society demands innovation. Programs should be adapted to ensure they meet the needs of these highly talented students, these future innovators. Traditionally, most doctoral programs are designed to prepare students for careers in academia. Yet only a minority of the 5,400 students who received a PhD from a Canadian university in 2009 ended up there. In some disciplines, as few as 25 per cent of PhDs grads have a university career. The majority will find jobs in industry, the public or not-for-profit sectors, or as social and business entrepreneurs. The problem here is not that universities are training too many PhDs. In fact, Canada still lags in PhDs per capita among the countries who are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

There is a growing appetite within leading-edge enterprises for highly-trained creative workers. Today's students are equally creative in their professional pursuits, looking for multiple career options. Universities can bring these two creative forces together by revamping the graduate curriculum. They can augment their fundamental commitment to scholarly research and teaching with novel forms of training in high–growth fields such as video game design and sustainable development. Universities also need to profoundly review the form and purpose of the traditional graduate dissertation to find more "real-world" applications for this important work.

The global reality surrounding graduate education today is more competitive than ever and while Canada has many strengths on which we can build, a profound rethink at the highest levels of higher education will ensure the coming years do, indeed, become our time to lead.

Graham Carr is vice-president, Research and Graduate Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. He is also president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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