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Margin Notes

The problem with PhD training in Canada

We’re not preparing grads adequately for careers outside academia.


For years now, successive federal governments have promoted the “knowledge economy” as the key to our future prosperity. Just recently, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stated: “Our greatest renewable resource is our grey matter.”

A linchpin of the knowledge economy is the production of PhDs, an area where Canada is seen to be lagging. At a recent symposium on the training of scientists held as part of the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, MITACS chief operating officer Olga Stachova noted that despite an increased production of PhDs in the past 20 years or so in Canada, we still fell from 20th to 23th spot among OECD countries in the number of PhD graduates per capita during that time.

But, even more worrisome was the sense articulated by the speakers and attendees at the symposium that something is wrong with PhD and postdoctoral training in Canada. The comments were in the context of the biomedical and natural sciences, but I think they could equally apply to PhD training in the humanities and social sciences.

The issue – and it’s not a new one – is that most PhD students have their eye on a career in academia. Yet, as several panelists at the symposium noted, as it now stands less than one in five PhD graduates will end up with an academic position and their training does not generally prepare them for a career outside academia. I have written a news story on the symposium, “Is Canada producing too many PhDs? Yes, no and maybe,” which you can read here.

Similar sentiments were voiced at the World Innovation Summit for Education held in early November in Qatar. “We still need to give students disciplinary expertise, but they also need the much broader skills of entrepreneurship, flexibility and understanding of the economy. Students need the perspective to think about the links between their creative output and industry,” said Deborah Buszard, a professor at Dalhousie University’s college of sustainability, as quoted in University World News.

(Not incidentally, many reports – including most recently the Jenkins report – have lamented Canada’s poor record in business innovation. I think these two things are related.)

University Affairs treated the subject in depth back in 2010 with this report (“Give us the dirt on jobs: Why universities need to prepare doctoral students for careers outside academe”) and this follow-up, (“Professional development for grad students: Skills training gives PhD students a boost, whether they find work inside or outside academia”). We also have a podcast series called “Escape the Ivory Tower.”

The blame for the inadequate training is being laid on academics themselves. Commented panelist Alan Bernstein, founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research: “People who are going through their PhDs and postdocs should not simply be looking at themselves as clones of their PhD or postdoc mentors. That paradigm is out of date. The academy – your mentors – are to blame for this.”

Dr. Bernstein also chided academics for perpetuating the notion that a career outside of academia is somehow a failure. “We need to get away from a pecking order that says the good students go on to academia and the poor ones go elsewhere,” he said.

Ian Chubb, chief scientist for the Australian government, made a similar comment the night before at the science policy conference: “We need to tell the universities they’ve got to change the way they produce PhD graduates to develop overtly some of the more generic skills they would need to be able to work outside of academe, and at the same time to psychologically prepare them not to see that as second best.”

Things do appear to be changing, but it would seem not quickly enough. Ms. Stachova mentioned the excellent MITACS Accelerate program, which offers opportunities for graduate students to conduct collaborative research with an industrial partner.  We wrote about the program, here.

And, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, in its recent prebudget submission (PDF), is calling for the federal government  to “invest in talent” by committing up to $15 million to develop a program of 500, 12-month paid internships, valued at $30,000 and matched by the host employer, that “integrate master’s and PhD students and graduates into the labour market, especially in small- and medium-sized enterprises.”

Finally, I realize this isn’t their primary role as science bureaucrats, but I couldn’t help but notice that Dr. Bernstein and his colleague, Suzanne Fortier, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, seemed to have little advice to offer the anxious PhD grads and postdocs in attendance at the CSPC session. Dr. Bernstein suggested PhD grads may wish to consider becoming high school teachers or seek a career in the vaguely defined field of “science diplomacy.” Dr. Fortier said it will be up to the graduates themselves to create “the jobs of tomorrow,” adding, “we’re rooting for you.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Rohan Maitzen / November 30, 2011 at 13:44

    “PhD grads may wish to consider becoming high school teachers”

    That does seem like pretty lame advice. For one thing, teaching usually requires yet another degree (and not one that is congenial to the kinds of students who were motivated to get PhDs in the first place). Also, job prospects in teaching don’t look great, so it’s hardly a safe fall-back position; Maclean’s recently reported “two-thirds (67 per cent) of education graduates from Ontario’s class of 2009 found themselves unemployed or underemployed in the following year.”

  2. Art Hill / December 2, 2011 at 13:37

    This is a comment which may be relevant only to my discipline. We find that PhD grads from our program in Food Science (about 9 grads per year) are looking for careers in academia or in R & D labs in the industry or gov’nt. The Canadian food industry does some development, but very little research. That means that many of our grads have to find jobs outside of Canada. So we train them and they go to R & D labs in the U.S. and Europe.

  3. Nina / December 2, 2011 at 20:32

    This blog highlights the problem that Ph.D students are not trained for non-academic careers. However, in most cases, we can say that they are not adequately trained for academic careers either. The current doctoral graduates are excellent researchers, but many of them lack the experience of teaching, writing research grants, supervising, etc. In other words, Ph.D graduates are researchers, but in many cases, they are not scholars. To be successful in a very competitive academic job market, you need to prove that you are a scholar with a wide range of academic experiences. Why are Ph.D students (not all, but many of them) not exposed to these experiences? I think that further discussion is needed in this direction.

  4. dr.doinglittle / December 6, 2011 at 12:57

    Yes, it is bad advice to suggest that PhD grads should just go and become teachers. In addition to the lack of teaching jobs and extra degree needed, you’d have a very hard time getting a job because the employer would have to pay you at a higher salary tier than a new graduate with just a BA.

  5. Alex / December 8, 2011 at 13:45

    The problem is not inadequate training for industry jobs, or inadequate training for academic careers either as suggested in one of the comments, the problem is extremely poor funding of basic science research in Canada. In my field there is approximately one position opening per year in the country, 30+ Ph.D. awarded annually, and 300-500 applicants for one faculty position, most with Ph.D.’s and 5-10 years (or more) of postdoctoral experience and lots of teaching experience. Anyone who does not get a position (which is over 99% of applicants) is told that they do not have enough experience. The real problem is simple lack of funding, and the notion is all research should be done by teaching faculty, whereas it should be really done by full-time permanent research staff outweighing faculty in numbers at least 10:1.

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