People go to grad school for a variety of reasons, including the desire to learn more about something they fell in love with as an undergrad. Regardless of their reasons for being there, most grad students must consider how they will pay the rent when their funding dries up and they graduate from an MA or PhD program in a climate of high economic uncertainty.
In disciplines like my own, philosophy, the opportunities to be employed full time as a philosopher are limited. This does not make the degree worthless, but it does mean it is wise for a student to stockpile a cache of skills and experience that will show she can apply her academic training broadly when she begins looking for work. The trade-off, however, is less time devoted to studying.
One job I held as an undergrad turned into a full-time, managerial position when I graduated. It was not directly related to my degree, but a degree was required. The experience I gained, in conjunction with my education, continued to help me land fairly good jobs after I left. I don’t know that I would have had as fortunate a start with only a degree, or with only work experience. The combination has, in my case, allowed me to both deepen my knowledge of a discipline I love, and maintain financial independence at fairly rewarding work places. The sacrifice has been time away from studying, and money earned going straight back to tuition.
This was my individual solution to a structural problem that appears, in our current socio-economic climate, intractable. School is expensive, and a degree does not a guarantee a job. However, advancement and rewarding work are hard to find without a degree. The benefits of a higher education, although evident to those who wish to advance, and essential to maintaining a civil and democratic society, are easily buried beneath anxieties about becoming employed at all.
In 2007, the Tri-Agency (CHIR, NSERC, and SSHRC) outlined nine focus areas, to address the need for graduate students to become professionally skilled. The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) statement followed one year later, identifying four similar priorities. The statements’ cover skills like communication and critical thinking, project and research management, teaching and leadership, and ethics and integrity. The U of S responded by offering a graduate course, GSR984. The course was part of a 3 year pilot project, started in 2008, called “Beyond Disciplinary Excellence: Enhanced Disciplinary Skills for Global Citizens.” The pilot program follows the principles set out by the Tri-Council and CAGS statements.
I took this course in 2009, during my first year of grad studies. The interdisciplinary enrollment of the class helped me learn to talk about my interests in plain language, and allowed me to meet faculty and professionals from various fields. The skills I acquired from my studies were called on in different situations than I would normally encounter in a classroom. From my experience, both in the working world and as a grad student, this is exactly what an institutional response to professional skills can best offer: a chance for students to translate the skills they already have while acquiring skills they don’t yet have.