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From PhD to Life

A response to U of T’s 10,000 PhDs Project

Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood want faculty, students and administrators to be careful when they interpret the data found in the 10,000 PhDs report.


This post is co-authored by Jennifer Polk (PhD, history) and Maren Wood (PhD, history), co-founders of Beyond the Professoriate.

There are significant challenges to collecting quality data on alumni and former students. We know this first-hand: Maren has tracked thousands of PhDs, and this work continues with our Who Lands Tenure-Track Jobs? research project. That’s why we were excited for the publication of the University of Toronto’s 10,000 PhDs Project. (Jen got her PhD in history from U of T in 2012; that makes her one of the alumni employed in the “individual sector.”)

As we read through the data on the interactive website, and the press accompanying its release, we want to take a look at what we – professionals who work with graduate students and PhDs in career transition – see when we look at these kinds of studies.

More PhDs moving beyond the professoriate

There have never been more PhDs going beyond the professoriate. One reason? More PhDs than ever are graduating from Ontario universities, without a commensurate increase in the number of faculty positions. In the humanities and many social science disciplines, the number of new openings for assistant professors keeps shrinking.

When faced with limited opportunities in higher education, graduates take jobs where they can make a living wage, find career advancement, and be part of a collegial work environment. PhDs take on new challenges both within and beyond the higher education sector after completing their degrees. These types of studies don’t prove that having a PhD credential is useful. They prove nothing about the relevance of doctoral-level education and training to careers.

With, or after, your PhD?

There’s an important distinction to make between jobs specifically for PhDs and jobs held by folks who happen to have PhDs. Take us, for example. We run a startup business; what we do day in and day out has nothing to do with our training as historians. Our past experience and knowledge of higher education has some relevance, no doubt, but we’ve had to learn a wide range of new skills: marketing and communications, customer service and support, employee management, business development and sales, the list goes on. Our PhDs did not prepare us for this work. We do it after our degrees, not because of them.

And that’s fine with us. We see no need to force a direct connection between education and career paths.

PhDs leaving academia are in career transition

Snapshot studies don’t address the process of career transition that so many PhDs experience. We hear from people who earned degrees across North America, in all disciplines, about how hard it is to move into non-faculty careers. With the exception of a handful of STEM disciplines, where time and research in the lab is directly transferable into positions in industry, PhDs struggle to match their experience and knowledge with the needs of employers.

Our most recent career panel featured three PhDs now working in the field of data science. Their stories are telling: Katherine Wilkins, PhD (computational biology), applied to over 100 jobs before landing a position as a . . . computational biologist in industry. But for Joe Frank, PhD (political science), and Nick Gaylord, PhD (linguistics), the path was less straightforward. Networking was a necessary part of their efforts to secure their positions in higher education and the tech sector, respectively.

Or consider Josh Magsam, PhD (English), our more recent presenter. He’s now part of the management team at, but he started his career there doing an entry-level customer service job. Networking helped him get that first job, too.

PhDs often start in entry-level positions and have to acquire industry-specific knowledge and skills before they can move into leadership positions. They don’t start there. Graduate students and their advisers should be aware that a career in a new industry can take a while to get off the ground.

PhD-specific skills?

The 10,000 PhDs Project report (PDF) claims that, “The specialized knowledge and skills obtained from advanced degrees can be successfully transferred to a broad range of professional contexts even within a challenging job market.” It’s true that individuals who have PhDs work in many different careers. That is not the same as saying that they have those jobs because of “knowledge and skills obtained from advanced degrees.” We don’t know what relevance PhD experience has to jobs that came after it. And we don’t know why these PhDs were hired or what skills and experiences they leverage in their positions. We only know organizations and job titles.

Smart people work everywhere and learning happens outside of classrooms and labs. When PhDs move into non-faculty careers, they have to translate their work experience in academia into core competencies employers are looking for: problem solving, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and communication skills. These skills and abilities are not unique to graduate education. Far from it.

Humanities PhDs opt out of “innovation economy”

One of the striking, if not unsurprising, findings is the small percentage of humanities PhDs who are employed in the private sector – or anywhere outside higher education.

The 10,000 PhDs Project report notes that, “Our society benefits from PhDs contributing to all its sectors, enlarging the intellectual conversation, proposing new ideas, finding innovative solutions, and proving the resourcefulness or people adept at critical and creative thinking.”

If we accept the truth of this statement, then it seems large numbers of humanities PhDs are opting out of making these contributions. Seventy-nine percent of found graduates are working in postsecondary education. If U of T grads are “fuelling a global innovation ecosystem” (from page 9 of the report) it seems clear that its humanities PhDs are playing almost no role in this at all. We wonder what humanities departments think about this.

The data is concerning in another way, too. About 17 percent of tracked humanities PhDs were in sessional/contract positions. In history, nearly a quarter of the PhDs tracked were still in sessional/contingent faculty positions. Why are PhDs in the humanities remaining in insecure employment instead of transitioning into other sectors?

Does Canada need more PhDs?

The single largest employer of PhDs from the University of Toronto is the University of Toronto, which employed (in 2016) more than 10 percent of all found graduates. Next on the list of largest employers are York University, Ryerson University, and the University Health Network – these account for several hundred more PhDs. Only 33 alumni were working at Google Inc., which is less than one third of one percentage of all graduates (although it is prominently displayed in a word cloud in the report).

A smattering of graduates worked at a wide variety of other organizations, including Intel Corporation (24), Royal Bank of Canada (23), the National Research Council of Canada (17), MaRS (9), KPMG (6), and the Mayo Clinic (5). None of these are significant employers.

It is challenging to draw conclusions about the skills and knowledge PhDs leverage in their careers beyond the professoriate: there are thousands of PhDs all doing different jobs with unique job titles: “freelance writer,” “policy analyst,” “client relationship leader,” “deputy director – quality control,” “designer and implementer of novel digital experiences.” It’s impossible to know how these PhDs ended up in these jobs, or if their PhD was necessary or useful.

Skills vs. credentials

To better understand the relationship between the PhD and careers, we need to understand the career pathways of people who leave without completing their degrees. At Beyond the Professoriate, we find that those who don’t finish doctoral degrees end up in similar non-faculty careers as those who complete the PhD. If that is true on a large scale, then this would directly challenge the implied argument that comp or having a PhD is important to the career success of alumni found in this study.

One of our past presenters, Andrew Miller, PhD (history), recently tweeted the following: “I have a PhD and work outside of academia in a job I adore. But my training did not relate to any job I had post-academia, and I could have got my entry-level position with my [history] MA.” He says, “The fact I had many transferable skills is a credit to me (not my school) for working to make them so.”

We don’t want readers to assume that doing a PhD is the most effective way to move into the many and varied careers represented in this study. How do these outcomes compare to jobs held by master’s degree graduates, or even bachelor’s degree graduates? Where are bachelor’s degree holders five to 10 – or 20 – years after earning their degrees?

The purpose and value of doctoral education

We celebrate the undertaking and release of studies such as these. They show that smart, capable people do all sorts of interesting things. Institutions should celebrate all the careers – and lives – of all their alumni and former students, whether those careers came with or after the PhD.

But we want faculty, graduate students, and administrators to be careful when they interpret this data. Individuals contemplating graduate school (or currently enrolled) need to understand what to expect after their degree and the consequences – positive and negative – of undertaking one.

  • Graduate students develop important skills and core competencies that are valued by employers in a variety of fields. These skills are not unique to PhD holders: you can learn these skills in academia or you can do so while on the job in the private sector, government, and non-profit world.
  • Time in graduate school doesn’t have to lead directly to a career, though it may. Students should feel free to explore career options widely, without the pressure to prove that their PhD “matters.”
  • It’s not wrong to earn a PhD: education has many benefits for individuals and society at large. We don’t regret our PhDs, even though they turned out to be the end – and not the beginning – of our academic careers.
  • We urge institutions, departments, and faculty members to be careful about what they tell students about graduate education and its relationship to careers beyond the professoriate. Words such as “prepare” and phrases such as “opens doors” or “opportunities available” are not necessarily accurate.
  • Rather than assuming the value of the PhD to a career, let’s interrogate that assumption. What is the value of the PhD to a career beyond the professoriate? And if there isn’t a direct link, is that OK? What if a PhD is primarily an education and not career prep? What if time in academia is limited to graduate school and does not lead anywhere? Are universities OK with that outcome?

The University of Toronto plans to interview PhDs as part of phase two of this project. We look forward to this next step!

Maren Wood
L. Maren Wood earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel hill. Maren delivers interactive workshops to help graduate students prepare for a non-faculty job search. In addition to her research, Maren provides one-to-one career coaching to PhDs.
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  1. Racine Brown / February 12, 2018 at 15:28

    Very interesting. I have certainly found I have had to make my own way post-graduation, and that having initials after my name haven’t always given me a leg up on the competition. I would do it all over again, but the experience has value for me beyond career advancement.

  2. Fari Munjanja / February 13, 2018 at 09:20

    This is a great article. There are limited opportunities in many career fields. A higher education level is no guarantee for a job in relevant career field. A lot of people require job search skills and need to invest time and energy in getting those skills

  3. Der Iuqer / February 14, 2018 at 07:23

    “Our PhDs did not prepare us for this work. We do it after our degrees, not because of them.”

    So what then was the point of the degree?

  4. Jason Sunder / February 14, 2018 at 08:42

    Thanks for this important and insightful contribution, Maren. I share your concerns about 10,000 PhDs’ delivery and methodology. As you point out, the study risks skewing the data to make outcomes look a lot better than they really are. I think they also raise a further question: Given the statistically verifiable trend toward alt-ac, are graduate programs beholden to offer alt-ac professionalization opportunities in the form of things like co-ops or internships? The impetus behind my question lies in the fact that the PhD is, on the one hand, a specialized credential with respect to so-called “hard skills” specific to a given discipline, but it also facilitates advanced analytical skills that are applicable across any number of industries in both the public and private sectors, from marketing to consulting to policy (the production of “Highly Qualified Personnel” in the jargon of university admin). Now, as you point out, 10,000 PhDs muddies up the latter issue here, as U of T would have us assume that the development of those skills guarantees a successful, high-profile career. In effect, they paper over the real, unglamorous scenario of a freshly-minted PhD having to compete for entry-level jobs with Bachelor’s or Master’s degree holders, a scenario that you elucidate here.

    While I’m with you up to this point, I do have to disagree with your claim that your and Jennifer’s PhDs “did not prepare us for [the] work” you do with Beyond the Professoriate. I would argue that the tangible skills you developed in things like marketing and communications or management, while not a direct outcome of your degrees, were nevertheless expedited by the advanced analytical capacity you would have developed through your graduate education. But the problem is that the connections between PhD and career skills aren’t made explicit enough, which is to say that we’re fed a narrative in which the real work of earning a PhD-for most of us, that means coursework, comps, and a dissertation-remains this arcane exercise shrouded in mystery that has no bearing on anything beyond itself. 10,000 PhDs implicitly buys into this narrative while also denying it when it mysteriously links analytical skills with career success without clearly bridging the two. I would argue that it is very much the case that comps preparation and dissertation writing are tangible examples of project management and execution (that is, setting out timelines to maximize efficiency, corroborating with team members, be it a committee or other researchers, finding solutions to difficult problems, generating creative interventions, condensing complex ideas into clear, everyday language, and so on). But PhDs need professional/community supports to link those skills to real-world career scenarios, and they need them early on. Relationship building is a key component of career development.

    Would it not then be the case that universities, PhDs, and the market stand to gain by fostering early on in the PhD connections between PhD students and professional networks that will need such skills? It seems that the alternative scenario is one in which a newly-minted PhD, unless they made those connections themselves very early on in their graduate career, is faced with the scenarios you describe here, of having to “reset” their careers even though their real-world skills and experience should qualify them for mid-career opportunities. That’s a waste of time, energy, and morale for everybody involved. UBC and U Calgary provide paid co-ops and internships for their PhDs, and this to me looks like a tangible, real-world solution with potential to expedite career paths after completion so that PhD candidates aren’t competing with BAs for entry-level positions. Other graduate programs should follow their example.

    • Maren / February 14, 2018 at 10:32

      Hi Jason – Thanks for your comments. We couldn’t agree more that PhD programs need to do more to incorporate career education & professional development. At Beyond Prof, we do this! We provide mentoring, community, career panels and workshops, all by PhDs, for PhDs. We also bring workshops to campus where we help PhDs think about what comes next, how to identify skills & communicate those to employers, how to use their time in grad school so they are better prepared to launch non-faculty careers.

      In addition to our community and professional development platform, we host an annual online conference – May 5th & 12th. Registration opens on March 1st. This is the Fifth Annual Online Conference, and we’re very excited about this.

      Come check us out!

    • Nancy Johnston / February 14, 2018 at 12:10

      Very much agree with your observations Jason. Work integrated education offerings such as co-operative education are certainly one strategy that has been proven highly effective in facilitating transitions to work, along with improving learning. They key is that educational models such as co-op require that learners take their contextualized classroom base skills and knowledge and move them to new contexts. This transfer of skills and knowledge is not easy and the literature shows that people often need prompting/coaching and practice in order to develop the metacognitive thinking. First make the transfer process explicit, coach and provide many opportunities for learners to learn to generalize what they know and can do so as to be able to mobilize in a new environment. Lots of potentially transferable skills and knowledge that is applicable in many workplaces is learned from PhD studies –the academy needs to help point that out and provide opportunities to practice this transfer across a variety of contexts.

    • Jennifer Polk / February 14, 2018 at 12:38

      Hi Jason! I’d love to believe this, but is it really true? “expedited by the advanced analytical capacity you would have developed through your graduate education.”

      We know lots of smart folks, with and without PhDs, who do incredible work. PhDs aren’t the only folks who develop these skills, and it may well be a particularly inefficient way to developing them (plus, I don’t think it’s really the point of a PhD to do so).

      I’d be happy to see research that proves us PhDs are smarter/better/whatever than others, but are we?

      • Jason Sunder / February 14, 2018 at 13:28

        That’s a fair point, Jennifer. I’m certainly not of the mind that only PhDs would have skill set X, and I also don’t believe that PhDs are better than non-PhDs. But I do think that there persists this popular narrative that a PhD in a given field is only applicable to work in that discipline, and that, in turn, creates this culture where we sell ourselves short in the alt-ac job search (some STEM disciplines are an exception to this. I don’t have the studies in front of me, but I recall a handful of outcomes studies that suggest non-academic careers are the expectation rather than the inverse).

        I think that Nacy’s point above actually states what I’m trying to get at more clearly than I did in my initial post, and it adds some important nuance to my question. If we assume that an institution bears at least some of the responsibility for knowledge translation—substantiated through co-ops or professionalization or what have you—how are institutions and PhD students to work together in making such processes a reality?

  5. Surma / February 14, 2018 at 10:36

    Thank you Maren for writing this article. I cannot agree more with your analysis. I read that report by U of T and has similar concerns (although not all the great points you highlighted). I am currently transitioning from the academic job hunt to non-academic and have experienced many of the barriers you highlight. Universities and many established academics (aka our supervisors, professors) have a tendency to overestimate the benefits of a PhD in the non-academic job market, which I believe stems from a superiority complex about a tertiary degree. Additionally, the analysis in the U of T report is very surface level, it doesn’t delve into many of the issues you highlight which our academic training certainly helps us to consider! Thanks again for writing this piece, I am going to share this widely to address myths about the overestimation of the potential benefits of a PhD in the non-academic job market.