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The Skills Agenda

Arts graduate programs have an opportunity and a need to focus on talent development

Students are not being properly prepared for future careers. This needs to change.


Arts graduate education in Canada needs reimagining. Social science and humanities master’s and doctoral students are, by and large, either being prepared for academic careers that are unavailable to the vast majority of graduates or not being prepared for careers at all. The result is difficult labour market transitions for students – and important questions for the social science and humanities departments offering graduate programming.

In our new book, For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities, Jonathan Malloy, Lisa Young, and I present outcomes data for Canada’s arts graduate students that demonstrate that the present model is not working. Consider the following:

  • Less than a quarter of arts master’s and doctoral students report that their career training was high quality (Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey 2019 data; analysis by authors).
  • Rates of employment for arts graduates three years after graduation decrease with educational level (as reported by Statistics Canada, 2020).
  • Although many arts PhD students enter programs imagining academic careers, the vast majority end up in non-academic careers for which they have received little to no training.

Given these and other challenges, my co-authors and I call for a reimagining of arts graduate degrees. Specifically, we call on social science and humanities departments to redesign their graduate programs with deliberate purpose around students’ actual needs, developing their talent in an efficient and inclusive way, and linking their studies broadly to key Canadian public good outcomes. We present a model, “EDITS” (Efficient, Deliberate, Inclusive, Talent developing, and Student focused) to guide this redesign. For this column’s discussion, I focus on the need for talent developing programs.

What does it mean for a graduate program to be “talent developing”?

Canada needs advanced talent to address the societal and economic needs that cannot be met by artificial intelligence. Individuals with advanced talent must be adept in at least one of the three “new literacies” that Joseph E. Aoun identifies for the technological economy:

To be talent-developing, a graduate program must explicitly and deliberately help students build and apply literacy skills in at least one of these three literacies. This means that talent development is included in program-level learning outcomes, and is operationalized through course-level learning outcomes. It is not enough to simply claim that students develop “critical thinking” and “communication” skills, with the presumption that students develop literacy skills passively through their time in a program. In a talent developing program, instructors assume responsibility to explicitly teach and evaluate students on these literacy skills.

Assessing your program’s current level of talent-development

In our book, we use a rubric model to assist faculty in assessing their current programs against each of the EDITS criteria. Each criterion has a number of dimensions to consider. For example, “Talent developing” has five dimensions:

  1. Program learning outcomes
  2. Course learning outcomes
  3. Assistants
  4. Evaluation
  5. Connection to the external world

Faculty members can quickly assess the talent-development of their current program by checking the current program leveling outcomes against the rubric – and can also use the rubric to identify how changes can improve their program from unsatisfactory to satisfactory, or better still from unsatisfactory to good or even excellent. Consider, for example, the dimension of program-level learning outcomes. In our rubric, talent developing programs are rated as unsatisfactory if they lack literacy skills among their program-level learning outcomes. By adding literacy skills to the program-level learning outcomes, programs advance their ability to develop student talent.

The full rubric is available in the book (ask your university and public libraries to add it to their collections!). And for those readers who are attending Congress 2024, please join us at our Career Corner session, “Reimagining and reinventing arts graduate programs in Canada”, on June 15. We hope to see you there!

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

To be part of the ongoing discussion about Arts graduate education, please sign up for our free Substack newsletter, “Reimagining Graduate Education”, or share your thoughts  in the comments below. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my other Substack, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her most recent book is For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities (with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young, University of Alberta Press 2024).
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