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Give us the dirt on jobs

Why universities need to prepare doctoral students for careers outside academe


At 34 years old, Marianne Stanford has spent almost half her life in university, pursuing her dream of becoming a professor. “I love academic research and teaching,” she says. “There isn’t really a career path that interests me as much as what I have done.”

But, as her second stint as a postdoctoral fellow and cancer researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute at the University of Ottawa winds down, she has come to a sobering conclusion. She may have to give up her dream and look for work elsewhere. “It’s the law of numbers,” she says matter-of-factly. “There just aren’t enough positions.”

In some ways, it’s hardly surprising. The economic freefall has taken a toll on many sectors, and universities haven’t been spared. Many have put in place hiring freezes. Some are cutting departments altogether. And predictions of a mass wave of professorial retirements have yet to materialize.

But the fact is that academic positions were at a premium even before the recession hit, and always have been. According to the 2006 census figures, 31 percent of Canadians with PhDs who were employed full-time held jobs as university professors. This was little changed from 2001, but down from almost 36 percent in 1986.

To be sure, a good portion of those who end up in non-academic jobs do so of their own volition. Dalhousie University’s surveys of graduating doctoral students show that about 40 percent intend to work within academia and the rest in industry, government and non-profit organizations, says Carolyn Watters, dean of graduate studies.

Still, she adds, universities don’t do nearly enough to make students aware of non-academic career options and to train them for these positions. “Really, all we train people for is to be another Mini-Me,” says Dr. Watters, president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. “As faculty members we should be more sensitive to the fact that not everybody is going to be like us.”

Signs of Change

Universities are offering doctoral students an increasing array of professional skills-training programs. And at least some departments are making a strong effort to educate prospective PhD candidates about future job possibilities. Still, some observers say that universities should do more so that students are better prepared for what lies ahead and can plan accordingly.

One of the most comprehensive studies of doctoral-student career outcomes was conducted in the late 1990s by the U.S. Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. The study found that 28 percent of surveyed PhD recipients were employed in tenure-track positions as their first jobs after degree completion. Ten to 14 years after getting their PhD, 54 percent of respondents were working in faculty positions, mostly tenured or tenure-track. But the rates varied widely among disciplines.

More tellingly, the survey found that many PhD recipients, regardless of their discipline, felt that they had graduated without having a good understanding of their employment possibilities. “Many respondents commented that they had only a dim understanding of the highly restricted and competitive academic job market they were entering,” the authors wrote. “They expected their advisers and departmental faculty to provide them with better information.” (Please see Helping grad students learn about careers outside academe)

Carolyn Steele, a career development coordinator at York University who also writes the Career Sense blog for University Affairs, conducted her own informal survey of PhD students. “If you didn’t believe there was a good chance you would land a tenure-track position,” she asked on her blog, “would you still pursue your PhD?” About 71 percent of the 146 respondents said “no.”

Ms. Steele isn’t surprised by the results. “People are absolutely convinced when they start a [PhD] program that there’s going to be more than enough jobs for everyone,” she says. When she herself was a doctoral candidate in the early ’90s she was repeatedly assured that many professors were on the cusp of retirement and that graduates would have ample job opportunities. The students she counsels today still hear the same empty promises, she says. While she doesn’t think it’s “a big collusion on the part of academics,” she believes universities aren’t as forthcoming as they could be.

Writing in the New York Times, Professor Mark C. Taylor from Columbia University stated the case more bluntly: “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning,” producing a product for which there is no market, he wrote. His article made waves last year. He said, “The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations.”

His comments frustrate Susan Pfeiffer, dean of graduate studies at the University of Toronto. “It’s not like we have to cajole people into applying for graduate school,” she counters. “It’s a mutual aspiration.”

Universities aren’t conspiring to keep information from doctoral students, she says. The difficulty for faculty members is that they can’t predict what the academic job market will be like several years down the road. Nor can they give knowledgeable advice about non-academic careers because most of them have only worked in academia.

“All I can do is tell prospective students what has happened to my supervisees,” she says. “And I take pains to draw to students’ attention the people I know who have PhDs and who have non-academic careers, because they are happy and are doing good things.” Unfortunately, she says, prospective students seldom ask.

Universities collect data, usually at the departmental level, and it is available to students who request it, notes Dr. Pfeiffer. In Ontario, departments are periodically required under provincial regulations to track doctoral graduates.

But not all departments do an equally good job of collecting and disseminating this information, notes Nanda Dimitrov, associate director of the University of Western Ontario’s Teaching Support Centre. Some departments simply don’t have the resources to devote to this. “Or there is this illusion that everyone who wants to go to graduate school wants to be an academic,” she says.

But, she adds, some departments excel at getting the word out. Western’s English department, for example, hosts a series of workshops to prepare doctoral students for both academic and non-academic jobs. Invited guests include representatives from the publishing industry, governments and non-government organizations, to keep students abreast of job opportunities in these sectors. The department works to maintain ties with its alumni who work outside academia and puts interested students in touch with them.

“We are increasingly aware of the fact that there just aren’t enough positions for everyone in academia,” says Pauline Wakeham, the graduate development and placement coordinator in the English department at Western.

The department is about to launch a new website that will profile graduates working in academic and non-academic careers. It will use the site to disseminate the results of its recently completed survey of PhD students who graduated from 2002 to 2007. The survey found that of 37 graduates, 18 (or 49 percent) had accepted tenure-track positions.

Western is among the growing number of universities that provide students with professional skills-training courses. Western recently introduced the 360º Graduate Student Professional Development initiative; it brings together workshops, seminars and courses under one umbrella. One course, a week-long seminar for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows entitled Preparing for Non-Academic Employment, fills up minutes after it is posted.

U of T recently introduced a similar initiative, the Graduate Professional Skills Program. Students who complete 20 credits of professional skills training receive a notation on their transcripts indicating to prospective employers that they have this training.

From the students’ perspectives, the outlook remains less than optimistic. Some say the elimination of mandatory retirement in many provinces has contributed to a dearth of tenure-track jobs. Others blame the increasing reliance of cash-strapped universities on contractual employees. And now, hiring freezes. All this is occurring at a time when some provincial governments have been funding an expansion of graduate spaces.

“The situation is pretty bleak,” says Ashley Burgoyne, a PhD candidate in music technology at McGill University who will soon be entering the job market. “I’m aware the odds are bad, but I still have my heart set on the university.”

Mr. Burgoyne believes that students, for the most part, aren’t well informed at the outset of their PhD training about how few faculty positions are available. The responsibility for disseminating this kind of information often seems to fall to faculty supervisors, which isn’t ideal. “There is an inherent bias in that relationship,” he explains.

“I think it’s similar to the child-parent relationship. We always see the best in our children and I think a supervisor always sees the best in his or her students and often that’s helpful. But when I’m looking for what the odds are that I’m really going to get a job, I don’t usually turn and call my Mom.”

The lack of tenure-track jobs is “disheartening,” adds another student. “I’m getting married in a couple of weeks and we will be moving in with my parents,” says this PhD candidate who didn’t want his name used. While completing his dissertation at one university and working as a sessional instructor at another, he hopes eventually to qualify for a tenure-track position. But he’s beginning to have doubts.

“I want to be a professor but I have to make money and I don’t want to live with my parents forever.” He has a colleague who works as a sessional at three universities to make ends meet, and that isn’t where he wants to end up.

As for Dr. Stanford, after two years of fruitlessly searching for that coveted tenure-track position, she has decided, somewhat reluctantly, to apply for jobs in the biotech industry and in government. “At one point I had to say: what’s more import, my research or my life? And I chose my life. I need the stability of a real job. I need benefits.” Eventually, she’d like to consider starting a family.

She understands governments’ desires to train citizens for Canada’s knowledge economy. But, by and large, PhD students – aside from those in applied streams – are taught to conduct academic research, says Dr. Stanford. Any talk of non-academic career options is relegated to “one-hour seminars” maybe once or twice a year. Little wonder, she says, that students come away thinking that alternate careers are somehow a second-rate option for those who can’t cut it in the academic world. In her opinion, what’s needed is a cultural shift at universities that goes beyond teaching students how to write a resumé.

Despite everything, some students remain stubbornly optimistic. Joshua Newman, a political science PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University and president of SFU’s Graduate Student Society, believes the academic job market is experiencing a “temporary low” and will soon turn around. “If teaching is your main goal and you are willing to wait it out, as long as you keep up a heavy research agenda and publish as much as possible, then finding a job is just a matter of time,” says Mr. Newman.

Some cannot afford the wait. John Wickett, a PhD graduate from Western, took a job in the private sector in 1998, just as his postdoctoral fellowship was coming to a close. “I had bills to pay,” says Dr. Wickett who holds a doctorate in psychology. The shock hit him about six months later when he realized he had left academia for good.

What made it easier in the long run was discovering that he enjoyed working in the private sector. “I like working in the applied world,” says Dr. Wickett, now senior vice-president at the Financial Planners Standards Council. He wouldn’t go back to academia even if he could. Yet he has no regrets about getting his PhD and would happily do it all over again.

His advice to aspiring scholars? A PhD education should never be just about getting a job. “Go into it with your eyes wide open. Know what the likelihood is of getting an academic job and,” above all, he adds, “be open to other possibilities.”

Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / January 12, 2010 at 16:31

    Good article. Too many students are doing graduate degrees these days under the false impression that there is a market for them in the end. You can blame both students not doing their homework as well as the faulty who egg students on to do MAs and PhDs. Profs really have no idea how bad the market has become – or they won’t admit it. It is a “dirty secret” that most of them are quite happy to ignore, so long as they have tenure.

    I think government needs to step in, cut graduate progams in a lot of smaller institutions, and strictly regulate enrolements by imposing quotas and higher entrance standards. Universities and depts have shown that they are incapable of doing this. Look at the number of dissertations being catalogued on the Theses Canada website and compare it to the number of job postings that come up each year. It’s insanity.

  2. nebs / January 14, 2010 at 17:34

    Of course there aren’t enough tenure-track positions! Every prof out there is training a new PhD at least every 4 years. People who can’t do that math probably shouldn’t have gotten into graduate school.

    Instead of cutting graduate education we should just shift the focus and do a better job at convincing industry why they need people with graduate degrees.

  3. brahm's ghost / January 27, 2010 at 12:49

    Joshua Newman, a political science PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University and president of SFU’s Graduate Student Society, is quoted in the artcile as saying: “If teaching is your main goal and you are willing to wait it out, as long as you keep up a heavy research agenda and publish as much as possible, then finding a job is just a matter of time.” Good luck to him, but this is rubbish: it is not just a matter of time, it is also a matter of luck. And, perversely, in some tenure-track job competitions these days, the more you’ve published the less of a chance you’ll have.

  4. Dr.NotSoEnamoured / January 29, 2010 at 19:14

    I earned my PhD four years ago. I found and accepted a tenure-track position almost immediately after. I have excelled in teaching, research and service and will have tenure (early) in less than a year. I will probably stick around in academe until I make full professor more for the lifestyle than anything else. I plan to start a family soon so academe is a good place to be for now. I have worked in non-academic settings before (including UN agencies, research organizations and non-profits) and intend to leave academe in the future to go back because I miss the challenges of working on applied research and policy. Assuming that I’m not the only person who intends to switch careers in the future, it means there will be at least some jobs for fresh PhDs when more versatile and more reluctant academics choose to switch careers after (relatively) short stints in universities. I perceive my ability to switch careers as a huge asset. It is certainly not because I couldn’t or didn’t succeed as an academic. I am certain that there are others like me out there.

  5. Dr. Weary / February 8, 2010 at 10:23

    The only sentence in this article that struck a cord with me was, “When she herself was a doctoral candidate in the early ’90s she was repeatedly assured that many professors were on the cusp of retirement and that graduates would have ample job opportunities”. I can’t tell you the number of times during graduate school that I would hear from tenured professors that the Baby Boomers would all be retiring “soon” and there would be a shortage of Ph.D.s to fill their shoes. I would find that laughable now, if it wasn’t such an irresponsible thing to tell a person making important career decisions. Many of these Baby Boomers are still active professors and will continue to be so until they die at their desks. No openings in sight. For an article subtitled “careers outside academe”, I saw no suggestions of the sort – just more doom and gloom. Let’s move past the lamenting and give graduate students and postdocs some hard numbers on they types of careers outside of academia (what professions/sectors have jobs available, payscale, security, job satisfaction). I grow weary of reading articles that end like this one – “be open to other possibilities”. I’m open – let’s hear what these possibilities are.

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