This week we have a guest post by Rosanna Tamburri, a frequent contributor to University Affairs who attended a session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference last week.
Is a PhD really a waste of time? This was the question that a panel at the Canadian Science Policy Conference held in Toronto from Nov. 20 to 22 was asked to consider. Since all of the panelists had a PhD, with the exception of one who was a doctoral student, it was little surprise that they all agreed that no, it wasn’t a waste of time at all.
Yes, the panelists acknowledged, it’s true that the number of Canadians under the age of 35 holding tenure track positions had dropped to 12 percent in 2005 from 35 percent in 1980. And yes, only 15 percent of PhD graduates in some fields will land a tenure-track job, according to one survey. And yes, PhD enrollments have ballooned over the past decade. David Gallo, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and organizer of the panel, summed the situation up nicely, although perhaps with a bit of understatement, when he said: “This leaves a problem for me and people like myself.”
Still, most of the panelists chose to look on the bright side. PhDs will continue to drive the knowledge economy and lead innovation, said Avrum Gotlieb, U of T’s interim vice-dean of graduate and life sciences education. He noted how lucky Canada has been to have had the benefit of the knowledge and skills of PhD-trained researchers to see us through the HIV-AIDs crisis, the SARS epidemic and, more recently, the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus. And where else but within academia do young researchers have the freedom to pursue whatever idea or problem they wish?
A PhD is a partnership, he said. Institutions have a responsibility to provide the best education possible. Students have a responsibility to maximize the benefits of that education whether that be within academia or not. It’s simply not realistic to expect universities to turn out job-ready graduates, he added. It should be up to employers to do that through on-the-job training.
Doctoral training provides students with the knowhow to generate and analyze data, and the ability to think critically – skills that can be transferred to jobs outside academia such as research scientists at pharmaceutical companies, research institutes and biotech firms, said Trevor Moraes, assistant professor of biochemistry at U of T. These skills are also transferable to positions within business and policy making roles, he said.
“I get a request a least once a week from either health agencies or companies looking for PhD-trained individuals with business or real-world acumen,” said Zayna Khayat, director of development at the International Centre for Health Innovation at Western University’s Ivey School of Business. “There are people who need you but don’t know how to find you,” she said.
Or go out and create your own job, suggested Ivan Waissbluth, chief development officer at ScarX Therapeutics, a Toronto biotech start-up. “For that level of pressure, you can do better in the private sector,” he advised.
But to do any of these things, the audience repeatedly heard, a PhD is necessary but not sufficient. To be really marketable, students also need to know how to communicate effectively and how to network. They need to show creativity and leadership and possess other so-called soft skills, which universities are trying to foster through professional development programs. Universities are increasingly incorporating this type of training within PhD programs, said Dr. Gotlieb. They are also encouraging students and faculty members to work in teams and trying to find ways to curb long PhD completion times.
Which is all well and good. But missing entirely from the discussion was any talk about the high attrition rates in PhD programs, even within science disciplines. No one raised the possibility of universities lowering PhD enrolments. Only Dr. Waissbluth suggested that schools have an obligation to tell prospective students that their chances of getting a tenure-track job are low.
And if only a small minority of graduates end up working within academia, why does the culture, the curriculum and the entire orientation of doctoral programs still train people for that job, asked Peter Milley, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, who was among the audience. “There’s a complete disconnect,” he said. Mr. Milley, who started his PhD after a 30-year career as a management consultant, asked why universities even bother having students like him, who have no intention of pursuing an academic career, work as a TA. “There are other things that people with expertise coming in later in their careers can contribute and schools are missing an opportunity in not taking advantage of that,” he said.
Change is coming though, Dr. Gotlieb assured everyone. “The die is cast,” he said. “We’re going to move forward.”
Maybe so. But like the PhD degree itself, professional development workshops and good intentions are necessary but hardly sufficient to fix this problem.