Editorial Matters: Skin in the game

We only do an issue of Academic Matters if we think the topic is important, timely, or relevant to the current state-of-play for higher education. But I have to admit that this graduate student issue has a special importance for me.

That’s the effect of having a bit more skin in the game, I suppose.

As you may have learned from my byline (and perhaps I’m flattering myself here thinking that people actually read my byline), I am myself a graduate student at the University of Toronto. I’m an odd breed within academia—a part-time PhD candidate who works full-time at, among other things, editing a magazine. I pay all of the fees, and do all of the work, but according to Massey College (who won’t let me in), SSHRC (who won’t fund me), and, one suspects, my colleagues, I’m not a “real” graduate student. My one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach seems like dilettantism, the cardinal sin of the serious scholar. I have no illusions of securing full time employment as a professor, a fact that sets me apart from my more optimistic peers. I’m exaggerating slightly, but there’s no denying that I don’t fit the “conventional” mode of graduate study.

Of course, this begs the question, “who is a conventional graduate student?” As my own experience suggests, this is becoming a harder question to answer. The old model, of steady, sustained study followed by a rewarding career on the tenure track, seems outdated. Students now go to graduate school for a variety of reasons, and many now find that the promises of the old model are illusory. Full-time jobs in academia are becoming scarce. Economists tell us that Canada needs more PhDs outside of the academy, but there is little attention paid to the world of non-academic work in a typical PhD program. Programs are changing to meet student demand, with many master’s and PhD degrees now offered in fields outside of the traditional humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences. The demographics of grad study are also shifting, as students from a variety of ages and backgrounds turn to graduate education to satisfy their personal and career goals. It’s not your grandfather’s grad school,

In this issue of Academic Matters, we’re trying to get to grips with the changing world of graduate education. Jennifer Polk writes a personal reflection on her own journey away from academia, painting the decision to pursue a career outside of the academy not as failure, but as liberation. Bryan Gopaul interrogates the narrative that suggests that grad school is futile or irrelevant to the needs of the modern economy. Critics get grad school wrong, he suggests, because they fail to pay attention to its nuances. For her part, Linda Muzzin looks at an often-overlooked career path for newly minted PhDs—teaching in Canada’s many community colleges and polytechnics.

At the policy level, Carl Amrhein, Diana Mackay, and Michael Bloom provide an overview of the Conference Board of Canada’s research into post-secondary education and the skills needs of the Canadian economy. In their article, they pay special attention to the implications of this research for graduate students and faculty members. As a counterpoint, Unifor economist Jim Stanford looks critically at the so-called “skills gap” and finds little reason to believe that our universities are producing graduates unsuited to the labour market. To add some much-needed international perspective, Elizabeth Bell provides a fascinating overview of the policy issues facing graduate education in the United Kingdom.

Obviously, this isn’t a complete account of the issues facing graduate education today. Such a project would require several issues, if not several books, to complete. But we hope we’ve given you a jumping-off point for discussion. There is no question that grad school is an important part of the university landscape. As our economy continues to shift and the intellectual needs of our society evolve, graduate education will only become more essential to our long-term economic and social success. It is therefore vital that we begin discussing the challenges and opportunities facing graduate students today, so we can help ensure a promising future tomorrow.

Those of us with skin in the game will certainly appreciate the consideration.

As always, we’re interested in what you have to say about the articles in Academic Matters, or about the magazine generally. You can leave a comment here on our website where you can also find web exclusive articles and blog posts. If you prefer the personal touch, feel free to email me directly at gstewart@ocufa.on.ca.

Thanks for reading.

Graeme Stewart is the Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters, Communications Manager for the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.