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Making it Work: Piloting Co-operative Education for English PhD Students at UBC

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 39, Issue 4, December 2013
pp. 9-12 | 10.1353/esc.2013.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the last ten years, institutions and governments have increasingly sought to provide wider employment contexts for humanities PhDs, given the shrinkage in tenure-track hirings. The United Kingdom has created its NewRoute PhD program, and Stanford has added work-study and non-academic training to its PhD. Print media have reported on efforts like the Praxis Network to broaden PhD employment options. sshrc has a new report on this issue, and two national conferences (including Congress) are addressing the subject this year (2013). Like many major universities, our own institution has sponsored workshops and seminars on the subject.

The impetus, the resources, and the need thus all coinciding, the Graduate Committee in the English Department and the Arts Co-op Office have obtained the support of the Dean of Arts and the provost’s office to pilot the first English PhD co-op program at ubc beginning in autumn 2013. While ubc currently offers a co-op option to some of its masters-level students in arts, and while a few other Canadian universities (including the University of Victoria and Waterloo) offer PhD co-op programs, ubc has never explored this option. We hope that our experience in initiating this program in the current economic and educational climate will be useful for others considering options for their PhD students.

There are several steps we took and stakeholders we consulted in considering a multiple-career-path PhD. First, we investigated existing options, including co-op programs, career services’ offerings, and existing internship programs (like mitacs). Our research led us to co-op (versus internships or generic career training) because co-op programs offer several strategic advantages over other options. First, students receive structured and supported paid work experience that bridges the gap between scholarly training and non-academic work: co-op makes practical the theory of career options. Second, taking on multiple short-term work experiences encourages reflection, diversification, and growth: varied work-skills may make students even stronger candidates for both academic and non-academic positions. Third, there are financial implications beyond the obvious alleviation of students’ economic distress: we hope this option will help us in recruiting PhD applicants, and the program should lead to development opportunities as our students move into the workforce. Fourth, co-op programs include tailored training, support, and feedback for students in the program. Finally, co-op programs at ubc are well-established, tested, and internationally accredited, with staff and extensive networks. Our academic program would not have the time or knowledge to make this happen without the resources of the existing Arts Co-op office.

Before approaching ubc’s higher administration, we assessed the commitment of faculty, employers, and students. With the Arts Co-op office’s expert help, we surveyed current English graduate students and led focus groups with employers and students to collect documentable data on student need and employer demand.

Developing preliminary budgets and a pilot proposal for the department, the dean’s office, and graduate studies was the next critical step. In developing the proposal, we needed to resolve specific technical issues about how and when students could defer their internal or sshrc funding packages while on work terms; whether their formal degree timeline could be extended for another year to cover their work-terms; when they could best start co-op; how Arts Co-op would receive its funding; and what funds we would need to develop the program. Our needs were ultimately quite modest: less than eleven thousand dollars from the offices of the dean and provost, with a small amount of ongoing funding from the department. In bringing administrators (enthusiastically!) on board, this planning and research was critical: needs assessments, feasibility studies, and administrative planning (including detailed budgets).

One of the biggest conceptual shifts in budget and program planning came when we recognized that while undergraduate students expect to pay tuition (and thus are amenable to paying the costs associated with work terms), PhD students usually have tuition awards as part of their funding offer. The co-op offices at ubc are funded out of co-op students’ work-term tuition, and so for our graduate students we have sought equivalent sums from the provost...

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