The Thorvaldson Building in the winter at the USask campus.
The Thorvaldson Building is the Saskatoon campus home of the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. (Photo: Submitted)

USask celebrates 75 years of graduate success, looks to the future

This year marks 75 years since the University of Saskatchewan (USask) College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (CGPS) was established, and 70 years since the institution awarded its first PhD in 1952. Dean of CGPS Dr. Debby Burshtyn (PhD) highlights how USask graduate programs have changed over the past three-quarters of a century.

The first USask PhD was awarded at 1952 Spring Convocation to Alastair Graham Walter Cameron of Winnipeg. Cameron did his doctoral work in the field of nuclear physics using USask’s betatron—the first accelerator of its kind in the country. Cameron went on to have a distinguished career as an astrophysicist at Harvard University, associated with the National Academy of Sciences and NASA.

Just before his death in 2005, the American Physical Society cited Cameron “for his pioneering work in developing the fundamental concepts of nuclear astrophysics. These basic ideas, laid out almost 50 years ago, are still the basis of current research in this field.” USask also conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws on Cameron in 1977.

Dean of the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Dr. Debby Burshtyn (PhD).
Dean of the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Dr. Debby Burshtyn (PhD).

Since then, USask has come a long way in expanding its program offerings and the outcomes for those who complete graduate programs. Currently, USask has 4,473 graduate students, including 1,571 international students. Graduate studies are unique in that they allow students to pursue further training in an area of interest—leading to accreditation for a specific career or to generate new knowledge in their discipline through research—and every student’s path is ultimately different.

“At one time, master’s degrees were stepping stones to PhDs, and PhDs were only training to become an academic,” said Burshtyn, noting how programs have changed over the last 75 years. “Now, there is a recognition, most recently in the social sciences and humanities, that there wasn’t necessarily a direct academic career opportunity for every PhD that was being graduated.”

CGPS is now looking at how it can provide necessary skills training during graduate programs while students continue to study in their areas of interest.

“The world has changed the substance of what people are working on, but the degrees themselves have not changed tremendously over a very, very long time,” Burshtyn continued. “What has changed is the career trajectory of those graduates.”

As institutions have grown and expanded, the climate of the outside world has also shifted, reflecting new needs in industry and academics that graduate programs work to prep students to meet. A shift to more community-engaged scholarship, where outcomes from research activities directly impact a community, has been a major change in the past 75 years of research-based graduate programs.

“We see less students entering graduate studies because they’re just curiosity-driven,” said Burshtyn. “In the whole ecosystem, there is a much greater emphasis on seeing a clear application for research and also working with communities directly.”

She added that there are more necessary competencies for today’s graduates including leadership, collaboration, and intercultural skills. The need for equity, diversity, and inclusion planning in research design activities are also a major focus for graduate students in today’s programs.

“It’s about really understanding that as a professional, regardless of career, these are core skills and competencies that students need to have,” she said.

Developing programs and training opportunities that fit the needs of the world are primary to the college’s strategy moving forward, with Burshtyn noting “a huge priority is Indigenization and decolonization.”

“We want to make sure that the different ways of knowing are integrated into curriculum, and one thing we are doing is providing training opportunities for our graduate students in their capacity as teachers so they have an understanding of the importance of reconciliation,” she said.

Considering that many graduate programs take many years to complete and are offered in a very different format than undergraduate studieswith many involving independent work that can feel isolatingBurshtyn said CGPS is working to prioritize the mental health and unique life situations of graduate students and offer supports accordingly, with updated policies to better support students.

Burshtyn said their team is in the process of establishing a student scholarship fund to commemorate the 75th anniversary of CGPS.

“We aim to foster a good, healthy interaction with students throughout their journey with us,” said Burshtyn. “As a college, we can really take on that leadership role to make CGPS a more inclusive, safer and healthier space for all of our students.”

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