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PhD: to what end?

Philosophy grads from Canadian universities are at a disadvantage in landing tenure-track jobs


There have long been anecdotal reports that graduates of Canadian PhD programs are often overlooked in favour of graduates with foreign credentials when Canada’s larger universities hire new faculty. Prompted by the suggestion of a sessional instructor who does not yet have full-time employment, we – two professors with permanent positions in small Canadian philosophy departments – decided to take a look within our own particular discipline to see if this indeed was the case.

What follows is a snapshot of the faculty complement for tenured or tenure-track positions in major philosophy departments in Canada. As the data indicate, graduates with PhDs in philosophy from Canadian universities are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding employment in larger Canadian universities, especially those with graduate programs in philosophy. University of Toronto graduates fare slightly better in getting hired than graduates from other Canadian schools, but most of the bigger Canadian programs are staffed primarily by individuals who obtained their PhDs from universities outside of Canada.

This raises serious ethical questions about the purpose of the graduate programs offered by Canadian universities, about the information given to graduate students who enrol in such programs, about the use of public monies to fund such programs, and about the hiring criteria used by philosophy departments in Canada.

Given that universities in Canada are, for the most part, funded by the public, one could argue that it is imperative that such important decision-making processes be made more transparent to the public eye. Yet, the phenomenon of university hiring presents particular obstacles to any scientific study of trends.

As with most jobs, when it comes to hiring faculty, the decision-making takes place behind closed doors. The precise criteria used to make these decisions are more complicated and subtle than job advertisements would indicate. Various issues can play a large role in determining who is actually hired for a particular academic position: academic distinction, research potential, teaching needs, ideological affiliation, gender, and so on. The rationales that ultimately lead to the hiring decisions – in any line of work – are rarely communicated to the public.

However, when it comes to the employment of Canadian PhDs in Canadian philosophy departments, some trends can be easily identified. This study focuses on tenured or tenure-track positions in philosophy programs at major anglophone universities in Canada (including the bilingual University of Ottawa) that have doctoral programs in philosophy.

These positions are generally considered to be the best positions in Canadian universities. Although establishing oneself in a major department is not a guarantee of academic distinction, it is, at the very least, a good start to an academic career. Such employment includes many advantages: higher salaries, lighter teaching load, more generous research funding, graduate students, and the added prestige that is naturally associated with larger institutions. (For the purposes of this study, “major programs” or “major philosophy programs” refer to departments that offer a doctoral degree in philosophy.)

The issue we wanted to investigate can be posed through two straightforward questions:

  • At major philosophy programs, what percentage of faculty holding tenure-track, tenured, or research-oriented positions earned their PhD at a Canadian university, and what percentage earned their PhD outside Canada?
  • Do individual departments differ in terms of their “Canadian content”?

We would have also liked to learn the success rates of Canadian PhDs in competitions for such openings, but because information about applications isn’t made public, we weren’t able to investigate this. What we weren’t interested in, for the purposes of this study, was the nationality of faculty members. Our focus was strictly on where they earned their doctoral degree.

Our method was to scan the faculty lists of the departmental web pages of the 15 major philosophy departments in anglophone universities in Canada. These websites generally contain a list of “regular” faculty (sometimes called “main faculty,” “core faculty,” “research faculty,” or “graduate faculty”). Sessional, part-time or contract faculty and retired, adjunct or visiting professors were not included in these tabulations, nor were instructors. Tabulating a list of the universities where regular faculty members in Canadian philosophy departments obtained their PhDs was relatively straightforward.

The findings

The data, collected from May 30 to June 2, 2009, are surprisingly clear and unassailable. Although departmental web pages were not always up-to-date and there were rare idiosyncratic cases, the data give an accurate report on the makeup of philosophy departments in Canada.

About 70 percent of tenured and tenure-track professors in major Canadian philosophy departments have been awarded degrees from non-Canadian (usually American or European) institutions; about 15 percent of regular faculty have PhDs from the University of Toronto and about 15 percent have PhDs from other Canadian universities.

The percentage of faculty with Canadian PhDs ranges from 5.6 percent at the University of British Columbia to 77.8 percent at Memorial University. At six universities – Dalhousie, Memorial, Ottawa, McMaster, York and Guelph – 40 percent or more of regular faculty members earned their PhDs at Canadian schools.

Because University of Toronto PhDs do significantly better in getting hired than graduates from other Canadian programs, we also examined them separately. The percentage of faculty in the major philosophy departments holding PhDs from Canadian universities other than U of T ranges from zero (UBC) to 44 percent (Memorial).

At the four anglophone programs that many would consider the most prominent in Canada – UBC, Toronto, Queen’s and McGill – the ratio among regular faculty is close to 80 percent non-Canadian, 16 percent U of T and four percent PhDs from other Canadian universities.

In the West, philosophy programs at the universities of Calgary, Alberta and Simon Fraser have less than 20 percent of faculty members with PhDs from Canadian universities other than U of T.

At the remaining major Ontario universities (Western, Guelph, York, McMaster, Ottawa, Waterloo), 20 to 30 percent of faculty have PhDs from Canadian universities other than U of T.

In the East, Memorial and Dalhousie, have strong Canadian numbers, with almost 78 percent and 67 percent, respectively, of regular positions staffed by PhDs earned in Canada. At Memorial, 33 percent and at Dalhousie, 44 percent, hold Canadian PhDs from schools other than U of T.

Finally, the university websites rarely provide the date of hiring, so it was not apparent whether the 70-30 overall split reflects current hiring practices; it’s possible that the faculty complement in some departments is dominated by people who were hired years ago. So, in late September, the 15 major programs were asked which tenured and tenure-track faculty members they had hired in the last five years.

For the 14 departments that responded, the recent hires have, in aggregate, continued the trend of hiring significantly more PhDs from outside Canada. Of the 88 regular faculty members hired by the major philosophy departments in the past five years, less than 27 percent had earned their PhDs at Canadian universities, compared with 70 percent who earned their PhDs outside Canada, mainly in the U.S. (The figures don’t add to 100 percent because the origin of three PhDs couldn’t be determined.)

For comparison purposes, we also looked at universities offering master’s programs, but not PhD programs. In the West, the University of Saskatchewan has almost 88 percent of regular faculty from Canadian PhD programs and 63 percent from programs other than U of T. But the universities of Victoria and Manitoba reflect the trend in the larger institutions, with about seven percent of regular positions being filled by Canadian PhDs other than U of T.

Impact and consequences

There are many pertinent questions for which the answers are not available: How many Canadian PhDs and non-Canadian PhDs apply for such jobs? How many candidates with non-Canadian PhDs are Canadian citizens? Are the academic records of non-Canadian PhDs better than those of Canadian PhDs?

If, to cite only one possibility, a substantial majority of applications to some of these jobs were Canadian PhDs, this would increase the disparity between the relative success rates of successful Canadian and non-Canadian applications.

There has been much discussion about discrimination in university hiring on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic extraction and physical handicaps, and there have been formal and informal attempts to ensure that underrepresented groups have a place in university faculties. One could argue that Canadian PhDs are, in the eyes of top philosophy departments, “educationally handicapped.”

One might conclude from these data that a pervading sense of colonial inferiority continues to exist in Canadian philosophy departments. Non-Canadian PhDs have their place in higher education, of course, but the degree to which they are apparently advantaged over Canadian PhDs is disconcerting.

Or, one might argue, perhaps Canadian PhDs are not as good as the very best in the world; the reported trends thus reflect a movement towards excellence in university hiring in Canada.

This riposte brings the following dilemma into clear focus: either major programs in Canada are discriminating, at least in some cases, against equally qualified candidates with Canadian PhDs; or, graduate programs in Canada are turning out inferior students who cannot compete with their counterparts with non-Canadian PhDs. We maintain that neither alternative is ethically and politically acceptable.

Consider the first horn of the dilemma. If employment practices at major universities discriminate against Canadian graduates, this is unfair and perhaps illegal. It certainly goes against the spirit of government policy. It seems unlikely that Canadian taxpayers would knowingly fund a system that discriminates against Canadians who, for many different reasons, choose to remain in Canada to pursue graduate work.

Now consider the second horn. If Canadian PhDs are, to put it bluntly, an inferior product, one is left wondering why Canadian universities support such programs in the first place. Why would the government – Canadian taxpayers – actively fund programs that produce only second-rate academics? It would make more sense to force promising students to leave the country for non-Canadian institutions where they can get “a real education.” Philosophy departments in Canada could focus on undergraduate training and service courses instead of PhD programs.

There is a deep incoherence here. If a department considers a Canadian PhD a liability, how can it, in good conscience, busy itself producing more Canadian PhDs? Surely, individuals enrol in Canadian graduate programs with the understanding that they will be advantaged, not disadvantaged, when they graduate with a PhD from that institution. They may be encouraged to believe this by departments eager to attract the very best students.

Morality requires at the very least full disclosure. Potential students applying to Canadian PhD programs should be informed about the trends reported in this article. Students hoping for academic distinction or high-level employment should, it seems, be dissuaded from enrolling in Canadian programs. Any other approach would be intellectually dishonest.

Yes, Canadian PhDs can find employment in smaller, undergraduate institutions, in community colleges, or as sessional or part-time employees. But the smaller institutions are, well, smaller. In terms of faculty numbers, we would have to add together the philosophy departments of many smaller, primarily undergraduate universities to produce even a single large university philosophy department such as the University of Toronto’s.

Let us finish, not with a conclusion but with an open question: Does the situation in philosophy departments in Canada mirror what is happening in other academic disciplines? One wonders. If this is, in fact, the case, perhaps the time has come for something to be done about it.

Louis Groarke is an associate professor in the philosophy department at St. Francis Xavier University. Wayne Fenske is a permanent philosophy instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

For more on this topic, please see The end of the Canadianization movement, by Yves Gingras.

Louis Groarke + Wayne Fenske
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  1. Tim Pettipiece / November 10, 2009 at 20:22

    Thank-you for this long over-due examination of hiring practices at Canadian universities. This situation is by no means restricted to philosophy graduates. I made the deliberate decision to pursue my graduate studies in Canada at an institution that perfectly suited my specialized research program. These studies, in turn, were fully funded by provincial and federal government programs. Since finishing my PhD I have been in the academic job market for the past three years. In this time I’ve formed the distinct impression that a disproportionate number of new hires carry degress either from non-Canadian (especially Ivy League) institutions or U of T. Your article now confirms my suspicions. I find the lack of transparency and elitism associated with this hiring tendency extremely discouraging.

  2. John Smith / November 13, 2009 at 09:22

    Tim, I myself did an MA at an Ivy League university, had the option of continuing there, but made what was in retrospect the spectacularly bad decision to get a PhD at a Canadian university, despite numerous Canadian academics warning me not to do it.

    As a result I’ve been on the job market for 5 years, despite having a book and several articles in leading journals in my field. I increasingly resent many of the deadwood baby boomers lucky enough to get hired in the 1970s and early 1980s. After much self-blame and introspection about how I’m responsible for my predicament (acknowledging my own stupidity in choosing to go to a Canadian university), I’ve concluded that he system is rigged.

    I warn anyone reading this *not to do their PhD at a Canadian university.* This is the simplest option of all. Canadians have an inbred cultural cringe – why bother fighting it?

  3. J. Fieldman / November 13, 2009 at 09:50

    It would be interesting to know what percentage of philosophy PhD’s granted overall (in North America and Europe) are from Canadian Universities. By my count, there are about 16 PhD programs in philosophy in Canada, and over a hundred in the U.S., many more in Europe. Assuming that international PhD’s apply for jobs at top Canadian institutions in significant numbers, the 30.8% of Canadian content seems to me reasonable.

    I am a PhD student at a Canadian program, not one of the biggies. I understand that I will never get a job at UoT or McGill. I understand that my university (if not my department) admits the number of graduate students it does because of TA needs, a function of ballooning undergraduate enrolment, not because they think we’ll find work.

    • Taylor Steele / April 2, 2023 at 13:13

      This would be reasonable only if the Canadian representation at Universities in the US and Europe was also around the same fraction. I don’t have much confidence that this would hold up.

  4. Robert Lawson / November 13, 2009 at 10:12

    The same can be said for other disciplines. I’ve been on the market in German for over five years and have consistently seen foreign PhDs hired over Canadian grads. In fact, of the ten Canadian PhDs, many of whom are native German speakers, who graduated with their PhD around the same time as me only two have gotten tenure track jobs; and yet more than ten tenure track jobs have been advertised during the same period! I even recall a job interview where a German was chosen over two Canadians despite the fact that he refused complete one third of the interview process and do a teaching demonstration (surprise it proved to be a disastrous hire). I think it is time to reconsider the number and types of PhDs degrees being offered in Canada. It is indeed immoral to keep graduating Canadians when their degree is not valued.

  5. Antony Eagle / November 13, 2009 at 10:31

    I think the hypotheses of anti-Canadian bias in hiring is implausible at best; surely it is more rather than less likely that Canadian institutions would hire Canadians preferentially. The hypothesis that Canadian PhDs are generally inferior is also implausible—its superficial plausibility arises only if one neglects the base rate. For all we know is the percentages of hired faculty; we have no idea how many institutions are producing PhDs who are looking for academic jobs. If it turned out, for example, than only 5% of candidates seeking jobs in Canada had PhDs awarded by Canadian institutions, then the 30% success rate would look very flattering to Canadian institutions, and particularly to U of T.

    Think by comparison: how many US and European institutions have a comparable success rate to U of T in placing candidates in Canadian tenure-track posts? Does Princeton compare? Oxford? NYU? I don’t have access to the data, so all I can report is my suspicion that U of T does better than each of these. Does that reflect a problem in the U of T having a graduate program in philosophy—of course not. If it did, that would reflect a problem for these other institutions too. Just because there are not enough academic jobs for every PhD to get one doesn’t mean that any particular graduate program should cease to exist, or that it would be ‘intellectually dishonest’ for any program to admit candidates to which it gives as good a chance as can be given of a permanent job as any other program does.

    Of course there are too many PhD programs in the world, so even the best departments only give their candidates a small chance at this prize. But the absolute magnitude of the chance is not as important for individual programs as the relative magnitude; it is only dishonest to admit students to a program that is significantly worse than its supposed peers in success rates. Nothing in the data cited above is evidence either for or against the claim that such dishonesty exists.

    One last point. On the first horn of the dilemma, the authors say ‘It seems unlikely that Canadian taxpayers would knowingly fund a system that discriminates against Canadians who, for many different reasons, choose to remain in Canada to pursue graduate work.’ But why not? If Canadian taxpayers care—as they should—more about undergraduate study than graduate study, then they should care more about the absolute quality of the faculty than about its ‘Canadian-ness’. It might be that the best way to secure a superb undergraduate education for Canadian students is to hire foreigners to teach them. It is not at all in conflict with a pro-Canadian policy that this state of affairs comes to pass, even if it is somewhat unlikely to be true that this is the best way of satisfying the taxpayer’s goals.

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