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From the admin chair

Skills that PhDs need for their job is a critical issue for universities

Ongoing learning will be necessary for all careers, inside and outside academia.


The kind of skills that doctoral students will need for their careers is a topic that has been garnering considerable attention of late. With new data suggesting that only 20 percent of Canada’s PhD graduates will find tenure-track jobs in academia (forthcoming from the Conference Board of Canada), this issue is worthy of considerable attention by graduate students, professors and university administrators.

Let me begin with my own career trajectory. I began work after a master’s degree running a demonstration speech clinic and as a faculty lecturer at a university. Then, after a few years’ teaching English as a second language in France, I returned to Canada and worked as a clinician and lecturer. Finally, I took the plunge into a doctoral program, which led to a tenure-track job. Soon I found myself managing projects and a research lab, dealing with financial services, facilities management, payrolls and budgets. No one had ever taught me about this. I learned with the help of colleagues and university support staff. Six years later, I became dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies and associate vice-provost of academic programs. These positions required different skills, from fundraising and running supervisory workshops to learning about the federal and provincial governments to working on university-wide planning and priorities. With every job change and promotion (including vice-president at two institutions), there was much more to learn about and manage, including improving my French language skills.

What’s become clear to me over this very pleasing career is that it required considerable ongoing learning and skills acquisition. My experience is similar to that of many academics who move in and out of academia and who hold administrative positions of one kind or another. Very few of us have ever had management or administrative training.

The situation for doctoral graduates whose careers are outside academia has a number of complications. To begin with, as graduate students they often have limited opportunities and experience with non-academic employment options and networks. For the most part, they’ve been mentored by professors whose entire careers have been within a university and who often don’t possess the skills and knowledge needed to prepare students for careers outside the university. Also, some professors are disappointed when their students pursue non-academic careers, and some students are afraid to tell their professors that they don’t intend to become an academic researcher. To compound the matter, certain U.S. granting agencies require professors to detail the academic careers and publications of their graduate students, used in evaluating the professors’ research grant proposals. For their part, non-academic employers are often not clear about the kinds of skills and knowledge that the doctoral degree provides and how it fits with their own work environment. They may perceive that PhDs will be misfits in their companies. The limited amount of research and development done by Canadian companies is another constraint. This is in contrast to many German companies, which commonly hire people with doctoral degrees (reported at the Universities Canada conference, Optimizing Canada’s innovation system: Perspectives from abroad, last October).

Moreover, people with doctoral degrees will find themselves in many different kinds of career settings. These include jobs in government, in non-for-profit organizations and in the private sector. Therefore, in addition to the research, writing and presentation skills that they have learned during their doctorate, they will need additional knowledge. The necessary skill sets will vary depending on the discipline and the eventual career.

Over the last 15 years, many Canadian universities have started to provide workshops (e.g. Concordia University`s GradProSkills and Ontario universities’ programs) that train students in a variety of non-academic professional skills. Universities have started holding career fairs for graduate students to provide exposure to various types of employers. Mitacs research internships and its STEP program – together with the additional training opportunities provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s grants, and industrial doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships – have provided many STEM discipline students with experience in the private sector.

These are positive developments but more is still needed for doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities. Paul Yachnin and Leigh Yetter (2015) have taken a fresh look at the future directions for the humanities’ PhD in their article in Policy Options and with a conference and other initiatives, partly funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. They emphasize the many very useful capabilities that doctorates in the humanities possess.

It is now 15 years since I was dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies at McGill University. At that time, during McGill’s first non-academic career fair for graduate students, national organizations in Canada were still predicting more doctoral tenure-track positions than could be filled by projected numbers of doctoral graduates. Not only did those predictions not come true, but we have moved in the opposite direction. The issue of employment outside the university for PhDs has become a critical issue and one that we cannot ignore.

Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University.




Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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  1. Jennifer Polk / September 10, 2015 at 12:20

    Great piece.

    From my own vantage point, supervisors, departments, etc. could do a much better job at helping graduate students recognize the skills they *are* developing doing graduate-level work and all the academic-adjacent activities they undertake. This would help enormously, and not just those students who will get non-academic jobs. Skills are obviously not anathema to the academic world, either!

    But in my experience, there can be a reluctance on the part of graduate students (& perhaps academic culture in general) to use the language of skills (too “business”). This leaves them at a disadvantage later on.

    Recognizing what you’re doing through the lens of skills is important to the process of figuring out employment options, and that’s a process that the vast majority of graduate degree holders must go through!