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Margin Notes

Producing more PhDs

The Conference Board says we need to train more PhDs in Canada. Good. Now, where will they work?


A widely noted report last week by the Conference Board of Canada gives Canada an “A” grade for its overall performance in education and skills, up from a B last year. We also rated an A and B, respectively, in terms of the percentage of Canadians who’ve completed college and university. The only black mark in the board’s otherwise relatively positive review is a D for the number of PhD graduates the country produces.

“Increasing the number of graduates with advanced qualifications … is important for enhancing innovation and productivity growth – and ultimately for the future quality of life of Canadians,” says the report, entitled How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada.

I will take the need and benefit of more PhD graduates for Canada at face value. It is something the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada has been saying for some time.

However, I can’t help but wonder what jobs, exactly, there’ll be for all these newly minted PhDs. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the majority of PhD students envision for themselves a future in academe. But, with the current budgetary woes at most universities, hiring freezes are more the order of the day.

A recent Inside Higher Ed article says of the situation in the U.S: “The job crisis for faculty jobs – especially for new PhDs looking for tenure-track jobs – is spreading.” It reports on sharp drops of 25 to 50 percent in the number of available positions in disciplines such as history, economics, English and foreign languages.

In a related piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor counsels that if you’ve had your PhD for more than two years and are still in an unsatisfactory teaching position, “then I suggest you cut your losses and look for options outside of academe. … Accept that your hope of being a tenured professor has reached a dead end. Overcome academe’s indoctrination process, which tells you that leaving academe means failure.”

But here’s the rub: how well are universities preparing PhD grads for a career outside academe? Is it even a university’s role? It’s an issue explored in our cover story, “Give us the dirt on jobs,” in the February 2010 issue of University Affairs magazine and available online. I hope it generates much discussion.

One last point: in Canada, roughly two-thirds of PhD grads do already end up outside academe. I wonder what the receptor capacity is in the private and public sectors for absorbing significantly greater numbers of PhDs. And I’m not talking just any jobs, but jobs that make good use of a graduate’s talents and offer fair compensation for their substantial educational background.

We often hear of Canada’s poor receptor capacity for translating university research into innovative products and processes. Will we have a similar situation with our graduate students? This is not so much a university problem, but a challenge both for the private and public sectors to value, capitalize on and adequately compensate highly qualified personnel. Are we up to the challenge?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. M Fullick / January 11, 2010 at 14:01

    The same problem is also happening with new immigrants, whose skills are vetted via the Canadian points system. We have the desire for more “talent” and human capital–to recruit the best, to strengthen the economy–but we don’t seem to know what to do with it once we have it.

  2. Dave / January 11, 2010 at 14:58

    Great post Léo! This issue doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. As a recent PhD grad, I can certainly attest to the lack of available options. There are still quite a few postdoc jobs in life sciences, as long as you don’t mind 1 year contracts at $35K/year with no possibility of a raise or contract extension. Provincial and federal government jobs have almost dried up and the Finance Minister says he plans to stop replacing people that retire. Empire-building university administrators that were caught off guard by the recession and ancient professors cashing in on the recent removal of mandatory retirement haven’t helped things either. With my contract up this summer and a single faculty job posting in my discipline, I’m starting to sweat a bit. Guess I should have gone into dentistry?

  3. Ira Lewis / January 12, 2010 at 20:50

    My father taught his entire career at Acadia University, and I did my BA and MBA at the University of Ottawa, followed by 16 years in the Public Service of Canada. But Canadian institutions showed no interest in accepting me as a doctoral candidate or faculty member. I was often informed that applications were not considered from “practitioners,” even if otherwise qualified. Truly bizarre, especially in business schools.

    During a phone interview with a university in the National Capital Region, I was asked no less than three times if I was familiar with the weather in Ottawa. The fact that I had lived in the city for 21 years, as indicated on my resume, was apparently insufficient evidence, and I was grilled about the weather more than about any academic or professional issue.

    My present workplace, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, contacted me without my ever having applied. I sometimes consider returning to Canada, but am usually told by senior managers at AUCC member institutions that I’m overqualified. Also, multiple interviewers have inferred that my status as a dual citizen is an unfavourable trait, as if being an American obliterates being a Canadian as well.

    The best thing the Government of Canada has done for my academic career is negotiate a reciprocal agreement on pensions with the U.S. The best thing Canadian universities have done is give me a good undergraduate education at reasonable cost. I’m happy with what I have, and leave it there.

    Ira Lewis
    Associate Professor of Logistics
    Naval Postgraduate School

  4. Dr.Doinglittle / January 12, 2010 at 23:02

    Yikes I cringe at the thought of students considering a graduate degree reading reports like that and deciding to go down that path. Yes, there really needs to be better information out there for people to make informed choices. The vast majority of PhD grads will end up with neither a tenure track position nor the skills needed to get a non-academic job that pays comparably.

  5. Valerie McGillivray / January 13, 2010 at 11:53

    Here at the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) of the University of Calgary, we’ve realized several years back that the future for most Masters and Phd students lies outside academe, and therefore the GSA has assigned precious funds to introduce a program whereby interested graduate students are matched up with mentors – most students either request or are lined up with mentors that fall outside of the traditional academic realm. And we’re happy to report that almost every single student (and mentor) who participated and completed the program are incredibly enthusiastic with the results of their pairing, citing many benefits they had not anticipated. The program has proven so popular that our Mentorship and Career Coordinator is constantly on the search for more mentors.