The recent federal announcement increasing doctoral and post-doctoral stipends is welcome. But money alone will not solve the challenges of graduate education in Canada. This is particularly true for social science and humanities (arts) graduate education.

The link between arts graduate degrees and careers is weak. Many arts PHDs aspire to become professors but Canada produces far more doctorates than available academic jobs. Although professional (course-based) masters degrees are typically very career-focused, many graduates of research Master of Arts (MA) degrees report struggling to launch a career.

In our new book For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities, we put forward a vision of arts graduate degrees that links them to Canada’s public good challenges — such as political polarization, income inequality and Indigenous reconciliation.

We argue that degrees must be redesigned with deliberate purpose around students’ and society’s actual needs. Student talent needs to be developed in an efficient and inclusive way, and linked broadly to key public goods.

‘What can you do with that?’

While students continue to seek and enjoy advanced study of the social sciences and humanities, the question of “What can you do with that?” resonates far too much.

Many students themselves are unhappy. Completion times are longer and dropout rates are much higher in arts than in STEM graduate programs. Graduate students’ stressors are formidable, with poor mental well-being contributing to decisions to drop out.

Undergraduate arts degrees have long been seen as “training for life.” But graduate students are older and practical concerns become paramount.

And since many graduate students receive government funding (in the form of scholarships and teaching or research assistant positions) to study, graduate education also receives far more public investment. It’s reasonable to ask whether this is a good use of funds when many students seem to have few job prospects.

Not a matter of slash and cut

Some advocate a simple solution: slash and cut these “impractical” degrees. However, as political scientists and public policy scholars, we know that Canada needs the arts, with its insights into human behaviour and thinking, more than ever. We argue for reimagining arts graduate programs to align with Canada’s most pressing public good issues.

Canada’s thorniest problems cannot be solved by science or technology alone. Their limits are seen as we grapple with the ethics of AI and complex human aspects of apparent “scientific” problems, like why some people refuse to be vaccinated.

Canada needs arts graduate education of a different kind than what is currently offered. As experienced administrators who have each held university leadership positions, we know the system right now is not working.

Erratic evolution of graduate education

Canadian arts graduate education has evolved erratically rather than strategically. The system is distorted by inappropriate funding models that give little guidance to students. They also incentivize universities to pursue quantity over quality.

Supervision models differ sharply across disciplines. In most STEM disciplines, graduate students work in faculty-led labs in teams on common projects.

In the humanities and most social sciences, graduate student research is almost entirely self-directed. (The fine arts, such as theatre and music, are more collaborative but are not our focus here.) While providing maximum freedom, this can lead students down dead-end alleys.

Grant agencies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council prioritize research training to produce “high-quality personnel.” But many arts graduate programs have not yet done enough to help students translate their graduate education to a meaningful career.

Students now left to struggle

The training arts graduate students receive is closely linked to academic career skills. In fact, arts students are better trained than ever for academic research jobs. But there are few available positions. Arts graduate students are then left to struggle to articulate how these academic career skills transfer to other sectors.

We call for an enhanced focus in arts degrees on what linguistics scholar and university president Joseph Aoun calls “human literacy” — the ability to engage others and think creatively about human relationships. Students also need technological and data literacy: an understanding of how things work, and how to analyze large amounts of information.

While the “digital humanities” have embraced aspects of this, we call for a more widespread and systematic approach. This doesn’t mean turning sociologists into software engineers. But it does mean developing advanced skills to interpret data and its human impacts, in ways that are useful beyond academia.

There is still a strong place for theoretical, curiosity-based arts research. After all, students are choosing research graduate degrees over professional training programs precisely because they seek intellectual challenge and discovery, not just job training. But there could be closer links between this theoretical, curiosity-based research, students’ employment or vocational needs and needs of communities.

Funding realignment needed

Achieving this demands effort at all levels within and beyond universities. It requires a realigning of the mechanisms, especially funding, on which the system is built.

Faculty and departments must shift from an “academia-first” mentality in their program objectives. Universities must find ways to pursue quality over quantity, rather than the opposite.

Governments and funding agencies need to shift to funding models appropriate for arts rather than borrowed from STEM, encouraging talent-building with a focus on the public good. Employers must be open to the powerful “soft skills” that arts graduates bring, rather than exclusively hiring on technical “hard skills.”

This is not a quick fix. Changing the arts graduate education status quo will require innovation and imagination. But universities and policymakers have a chance to take the first steps.