Much ado about reforming PhD programs right now.
February 8th, 2013

Much ado about reforming PhD programs right now. Check out the graph above. This is the most up-to-date data we have in this country. According to an article in this month’s University Affairs, “the proportion of PhD students who successfully complete their degrees within nine years has risen across all disciplines, but completion times remain long and in some fields have even increased.” That’s alarming, and has given rise to some serious refocusing on the value of graduate programs everywhere. There are lots of reasons for the slower completion rates, not the least of which is that there may be nowhere to go in the academy once you actually finish your degree. Concordia University is now rewarding timely doctoral graduates with bonuses; UBC is reviewing its entire program menu to see how best to encourage more timely completion rates; and some universities are considering limiting their PhD intake altogether.

I agree we need to examine how to encourage our students to progress more evenly, quickly, and productively through their programs, but how could I be anything but self-interested when I say I worry about limiting PhD admissions? I just believe that a society with more PhDs is better off. And I fully believe Canada, always the world underachiever, could use way more. It’s tempting to apply Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism here:  Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We are still quoting Wilde, who wrote these words over a hundred years ago, because he almost always nailed it. Well, the value of a PhD surely lies in more than what the market dictates. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that in mind.

One commonplace emerging for these discussions about PhD reform is that the PhD dissertation itself needs to change, needs to break away from the confining rigors of the manuscript. The only recent major change to the traditional doctoral dissertation is the shift electronic format. That shift is ever so slowly starting to open up the possibility of embedding new media and other visual and aural components in the foundational document, but the final PhD submission is still meant to be largely text. Is a hefty word-intensive manuscript really the best recommendation for employment beyond the academy? I suspect we will be trying to answer that question sooner than later.

And speaking of years, just how does one change institutional practice? Mountains of material are dedicated to this subject, as are consultants and management gurus. Thing is, change will come from graduate students themselves who have already pushed us to think much more broadly about our programs and promises. Students are much more in tune with the zeitgeist anyway.

Personally, I find it really exciting to be a grad dean when there’s so much talk about what the value of a PhD is, whether we should be recruiting or not, and where this is all heading. It makes strategic planning all the more important. Our application rate at Memorial is up again this year by a healthy percentage and so there is still every indication that many people around the globe want to get a PhD in something or another. Go on, UBC, shut your programs down if you want. We’re open wide for business, as usual –although maybe not as usual if we really rethink the PhD for the 21st century.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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