Transforming Humanities PhD Programs



Release Date

March 24, 2014


Paul Yachnin and Leigh Yetter report on their knowledge synthesis on underemployment of those who hold humanities PhDs. The researchers argue that high-level humanities research and teaching has a high social value as it leads to clearer, more historically informed and ethical understanding of problems in Canada. Yachnin and Yetter recommend transforming humanities PhD programs so that they lead to multiple career paths outside academia.

Read the transcript

Paul Yachnin
Tomlinson professor of shakespeare studies and Director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas
McGill University

Leigh Yetter
Executive director, Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas
McGill University

Paul Yachnin: What we want to do is to get people from all levels—students, faculty, administrators, people in public office and people in policy—we want to get them together to talk about how the humanities can contribute to the well-being of Canadian society and how we can make the PhD degree a much better degree.

Leigh Yetter: Well, what’s come out of the project, I think, is some very sort of eye-opening data, some numbers, some realities that we need to address, but also some real opportunity.

Paul Yachnin: It started when Leigh brought this grant program to my attention, and when I saw it and it had the words skill and labour market, I said this isn’t for us. And she insisted. And she did the grant application and was successful. And as I got into it, I realized that it opened my eyes to the conditions of my own work as a PhD supervisor.

And it was difficult to deal with the real facts of the challenges that face the PhD in the modern university.

Leigh Yetter: I think what appealed to me about the Knowledge Synthesis Grant program and why I wanted to pursue it, although on the surface it did seem like a little bit of an odd fit, was I was very intrigued to find out what would happen if we addressed the issue of graduate training from the perspective of skills development and labour needs, labour market needs. Those of us working within the academy can do a lot more to address the full potential of those students and to open the training programs that we do have to allow for a multiplicity of outcomes, not just a singular outcome, which right now is the professoriat—we train—PhDs are meant to be future professors.

Paul Yachnin: There is a great deal that we could do to change the PhD to make it much better both for the students and for Canadian society.