Answer to: Reimagining (and Redoing) Graduate Education for the 21st Century

Answer to: Reimagining (and Redoing) Graduate Education for the 21st Century

Dr. Lisa Young
Dean and Vice-Provost, Graduate Studies (University of Calgary)

Susan Porter’s blog post makes a compelling case for the imperative to reimagine graduate education, both in substance and in form. The vision she articulates problematizes the disciplinary boundaries of scholarship, adherence to models of scholarship that valorize communication to relatively small academic audiences, and attachment to traditional models of scholarly communication.

I agree with her analysis that scholarship and scholarly communication are changing, and that graduate education must be open to these changes, and in some respects lead the way. After all, graduate students are the emerging generation of scholars, and if we do not find ways to help them challenge the boundaries of scholarship and scholarly communication, we are standing in the way of change.

So what is the role for graduate supervisors, program directors and deans? We are “the establishment”, embodying the status quo. Some of us are deeply attached to the way things are, and have ‘always’ been done. We think that candidacy exams should be just as rigorous as the ones that we recall passing, and dissertations should be first drafts of scholarly monographs, just like ours were, back in the day. I believe that this attachment to the status quo isn’t just innate conservatism, but an aversion to risk. As supervisors, we want our students to succeed, to pass their thesis defense with ease and move forward, perhaps into the academic career that we have enjoyed.

Writing a dissertation that crosses disciplinary boundaries, that embodies an unfamiliar epistemology, or that takes a form other than the traditional entails risk. When we advise students who want to innovate, we often find our own advice to be surprisingly conservative, in an effort to minimize the risk of failure for our promising student.

Just as we are, as an institution, encouraging our students to engage in entrepreneurial thinking, we are as faculty members faced with an imperative to find the right balance between innovation and risk aversion for our graduate students. How can we encourage graduate students to take intellectual risks, while still serving as their trusted advisors? There are no easy answers to this question, but it is a conversation we must have. We must also confront the possibility that there is greater risk in failing to innovate than in innovating; perhaps, in counselling students to pursue traditional questions through traditional means communicated in traditional ways, we are preparing them for yesterday’s academy, rather than tomorrow’s research environment.

In the Faculty of Graduate Studies, we are trying to open these conversations in a variety of ways. We have supported the University of Calgary SAGE group (Supporting Aboriginal Graduate Education) in pursuing a series of conversations around the topic of Decolonizing the Dissertation. We have also developed a webpage that discusses non-traditional thesis forms, and profiles some notable examples of innovation. We hope that these conversations help students and their supervisors to think about risk and reward in new ways.



Lisa Young received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto in 1996. She also holds an MA in Political Science from Carleton University and a BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Winnipeg. Her research interests include Canadian political parties, women’s participation in politics, interest groups and social movements and the regulation of electoral finance. She is the recipient of a University of Calgary Killam Research Fellowship (2003), and a Faculty of Social Sciences Distinguished Research Award (2000).

Posted on: April 5, 2018susanne

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