To get grads jobs, humanities should reclaim skills

Graduates need to be comfortable outside the academy, says one professor

Ph.D. programs should rethink professional skill development to better prepare graduates for successful careers beyond academia, Paul Yachnin writes in University Affairs.

Yachnin is director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas at McGill University. He notes that skill development—in the context of Ph.D. programs—is most commonly framed as an economic imperative, and subordinate to the core mission of promoting academic research.

Who is responsible for closing the 'skills gap'?

A 2008 report by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies acknowledges that professional skills are an important tool in promoting employability but warns that skill development programs "should not extend the length of the program of study."

Rethinking skill development

Yachnin counters that "skills training is already an integral but usually invisible dimension of Ph.D. programs" that should be embraced and expanded for the benefit of students and society.

Notably, Yachnin also argues skill development programs should aspire to more than providing economic benefits. "Is it not possible to think of skills in deeper terms? Isn't it true that learning a new skill can change a person, often in profound and long-lasting ways?" he asks.

Such an approach to skill development has a place in the core mission of Ph.D. programs—particularly in the humanities, says Yachnin. "It is worth remembering that one major purpose of humanities education in the past was to prepare students for public life and public service," he writes.

By integrating skill development into the core curriculum of Ph.D. programs, Yachnin says students will be better prepared to contribute to public life beyond academic research.

A recent essay in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education outlined such a model. The traditional approach of separating professional skill development from a program's core curriculum should be replaced by "a more integrated approach, where students' thesis research itself is oriented to their possible futures," the authors wrote.

Building a sense of identity

Yachnin says an integrated approach to skill development would better prepare students for life outside of academia by cultivating a more versatile sense of identity among graduates. "Skills are not merely things we take with us into the labour market; skills are shared, transformative kinds of know-how that are able to knit people together into communities of practice," he writes.

Currently, Yachnin says, Ph.D. students predominantly learn academic skills that bind them to the academic community. Doctoral students are "are disposed to do their work only in a university environment," because they have developed an "academic disposition," he writes.

What is required, Yachnin argues, is "dispositional mobility,"—or the ability of Ph.D. students to move between different contexts. For example, students should learn "not only the ability to teach at a university but also the ability to teach fellow workers, senior citizens, or high school students," Yachin writes.

Yachnin makes a case for both the public and practical value of such an approach. His research on PhD programs has found "it is impossible to achieve anything like a respectable academic placement rate," but he does not argue doctoral programs should be scaled back. Instead, programs should "become innovative, interdisciplinary, and outward looking," and designed to prepare graduates for a more diverse range of professional opportunities.

"It is time now for humanities faculty to take a leading part in public skills training, in the reorientation of the humanities toward the world, and in the opening of PhD programs so that they lead and are seen to lead to a multiplicity of career pathways rather than to only one," he concludes (Yachnin, University Affairs, 3/11).

The takeaway: PhD programs should better prepare graduates for life outside academia by emphasizing skills that have societal as well as economic value, one professor argues.

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