In recent years, there has been an increasing availability of data on PhD program outcomes in Canada. In addition to Statistics Canada’s national-level data on doctoral career outcomes, there are growing records of personal doctoral career narratives (see, for example, the TRaCe project). Further, a number of Canadian universities, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, Concordia University, McGill University, and the University of Alberta, have researched the career outcomes of their doctoral programs.
All of these data are important and each can be informative to departments. But for academic units seeking to make student-centred program decisions, the data available are not sufficient. Statistics Canada data categories may be aggregated in ways that can be challenging to use, personal narratives often reflect a combination of individual interests and serendipity, and institution-specific studies are difficult to generalize to other universities.
What Canadian doctoral programs need is discipline-specific data.
The value of discipline-specific data
Departments or units seeking to assess and perhaps reimagine their doctoral programming need evidence of the current state of doctoral career outcomes in their discipline. Where do Canada’s PhD graduates in biology, English, anthropology, mathematics, or [insert your own discipline here] tend to end up? Are their career outcomes similar to other disciplines? Are there notable trends between subfields? Discipline-specific information allows units to put their own doctoral programs into a more focused context and to identify possible points of action.
Discipline-specific data are also essential for disciplines to hold themselves to account for their futures. In 2006, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching argued that PhDs serve an important role as “stewards of the discipline,” individuals “to whom we can entrust the vigor, quality, and integrity of the field.” Disciplinary associations, as a collective of PhDs who train future PhDs, have a responsibility to understand the current trajectories of doctoral program graduates, particularly given the widespread discussion and recognition of “the academic job crisis”.
A task force on the future of the history PhD
A recent effort by a Canadian disciplinary association demonstrates how discipline-specific data can create unique and important insights. In 2021, the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) established a task force to examine history doctoral training in Canada. After over a year of study, they issued their report. They state in the introduction: “Front of mind as we began this project was the dismal state of the academic job market, the paucity of funding available to PhD students, the length of time that it was taking to complete a PhD, the possibility of preparing students for jobs outside of academia and the degree to which our disciplinary practices and processes are rooted in colonial practices and class hierarchies.”
The task force chair, Catherine Carstairs, told me that the task force members brought considerable energy to the project and that “one research project would lead to another.” By the time of their report in fall 2022, the task force had: conducted a census of the 24 history PhD programs offered in Canada; held focus groups with graduate chairs/directors; created a dataset of completed dissertations between September 2016 and August 2022 (there were 562 in total); created a database of recent tenure-stream hiring; and assessed relevant Statistics Canada data, comparing funding levels with costs of living. (Task force members used the latter data to put forward arguments about graduate student funding levels in Canada.)
The result was a wealth of discipline-specific information. I encourage you to read the CHA task force’s report (available in English and in French). I also encourage you to see the associated series of short articles on Active History, a public-facing website, about:
- PhD numbers and topics of study
- time to completion for PhDs
- tenure-stream hiring outcomes
- student perspectives on the PhD
- PhD supervision
- the PhD dissertation
- the role of comprehensive exams, and
- doctoral program design.
The work is all, of course, specific to history – which is the point. For those of us who are not historians, it immediately brings to mind the question: What would these data look like for my own discipline?
Wouldn’t it be nice to know?
Call to action for Canadian disciplinary associations
PhD career outcomes are a concern for almost all academic disciplines. For this reason, I encourage Canada’s academic disciplinary associations to use the work of the CHA as inspiration to create a similar disciplinary evidence base. Here are some ideas to move this forward:
- Faculty can organize panels at annual meetings to discuss what aspects of the CHA task force model and/or findings might be valuable to their own discipline.
- Faculty and graduate students can call upon disciplinary association leadership to create task forces to examine doctoral career outcomes.
- Disciplinary association boards can add the topic of creating a task force to their next meeting agenda.
- Disciplinary association presidents can lead their boards to establish a task force.
The CHA task force’s work demonstrated a clear commitment to student well-being while advancing the discipline. As they write, “we need to ensure that we are not taking graduate students because of … structural incentives – instead, we need to think first about what is best for the students who are enrolling in graduate programs.” This, for me at least, is critical to being true stewards of the discipline. I hope other disciplinary associations will follow their lead.
Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation
What is the state of knowledge about doctoral education in your own discipline? Please let me know in the comments below. I also welcome the opportunity to speak with your university about skills training. Please connect with me at [email protected], subject line “The Skills Agenda”. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.
I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.