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How UBC and UBCO are revolutionizing Ph.Ds

Image Credit: UBC Okanagan

The Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia is in its second year of the Public Scholar’s Initiative and impacts to the community are already being observed.

This initiative has been brought to the Okanagan after tremendous success with the Vancouver scholars and allows for a different form of the Ph.D. in which the whole format is reviewed.

“The PSI can be accessed by three distinct doors: the first one is public impact, real-world impact during the Ph.D.; is the world a better place because of your Ph.D.? The second door is what we call next-generation dissertations in that we have thousands and thousands of Ph.D.s in Canada every year and they’re all the same format, but really, who reads 300-page documents? Why not make a podcast, documentary or app out of it, which can be enjoyed by anyone? The last door to the PSI is collaboration: the best example is with climate change: who has to take the lead on this? The department of political science? Of forestry? Of engineering? It’s all of us, the collaborative approach allows for public scholarship and allows for public impact,” Serbulent Turan, Manager of the Public Scholars Initiative, says.

In education, the Ph.D. is the highest level of education one can achieve and it usually takes on the form of a 200- to 300-page thesis that culminates three to five years of research.

The Ph.D. has been around for years and is highly regarded, but in some ways it is slightly outdated, and that is where the idea for the Public Scholars Initiative comes from.

“If you imagine the history of education, the Ph.D that I have from UBC from 2018, is identical in form to the Ph.D that Karl Marx has which was submitted in the 1820s. Think about it, from the 1820s to the 2020s, 200 years, think about how the world has changed, we have somehow settled on this form of Ph.D., this dissertation, this written document as the ultimate form of this highest level of education. With everything that has changed since Karl Marx got his Ph.D, we decided that we were okay with this form of Ph.D and that is a little bit funny if you think about it…We’re taking some of the most passionate, smartest, and interested people and telling them to lock themselves into a room for about five years to conduct this research and come out with 300 pages of text that, realistically, maybe three to five people are going to read or know that it exists,” Turan says. “The PSI comes from rethinking this very old approach to education because if you are doing the work, creating knowledge in the best academically rigorous methodology, cutting-edge techniques why wouldn’t you be able to present it in a podcast format, a movie, a cellphone app? Why wouldn’t you be able to work with the communities and try to help their problems during your Ph.D? It is said that research to policy translation, on average, takes 17 years, but in academia, if you quote 17-year-old research it’s become, most likely, outdated. So this is where the PSI comes from.”

This progressive way of envisioning the Ph.D. promotes students who are passionate about helping their community to do their research collaboratively.

Of the 347 students, nine are from the Okanagan and are working directly with the community. It’s a win-win in the sense that the students can do their research through certain communities, and these communities are going to be directly benefiting from these research projects.

“I have a catapult of examples of how the PSI has had tremendous community impact, we have 347 scholars, half of whom have already graduated, so we have seen tremendous impact on the communities they have worked with,” Turan says. “One example from the Okanagan is Kaushal Gnyawali whose research is based on the fact that after a fire the earth becomes so firm that water doesn’t penetrate it, and water isn’t absorbed. So, after a fire, the risk of flooding increases and Kaushal is working on computer modelling that, if it works, is going to show the likely paths of floods. While it won’t stop them, it’s going to allow us to see where most of the flood damage will occur and allow for much better prevention and preparation. To study this, he is also working with First Nations in the Okanagan because they are the most at risk, and because of his work, the community will be safer.”

This program is quite a revolutionary initiative and, sure enough, other universities have decided to take from this program to bring new options to graduate degrees.

The Public Scholars Initiative might just be the future of Ph.Ds and the Okanagan happens to be part of this revolution.

“I am certain that this is the future of Ph.Ds and we are the very first ones to launch this program; the University of Queensland, the University of Toronto, Dalhousie University, and Concordia all have similar programs now and they have credited UBC for the creation of their programs, but none of the programs provide everything that we’re doing here. Even Princeton and Stanford are in the process of doing this as far as I have heard.”

The world of academia is a pretty traditional one so bringing this forward, as would bringing any change forward, did not come without pushback, but scholars like Sarah Dickson-Hoyle made it all possible.

“Bringing this program forward has been challenging at times, integrating newer methods into academics is not always easy, at first the program was almost seen as this lower-grade Ph.D, but now that we’re seeing its impacts and the research that comes out of it, it definitely is not and academics have come to embrace it,” Turan says. “Sarah Dickson who is retiring soon, this is her brainchild, even though she would say it is the culmination of many people’s work, she has been the main advocate and person behind this program and it would not be what it is today without her.”

The University of British Columbia Okanagan currently has nine public scholars but will have many more to come and the Okanagan will be so much better for it.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Gabrielle Adams or call (250) 863-7592 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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