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Speculative Diction

Do you have a stat for that?


This weekend I was working on an essay about graduate education and decided to look up a few key statistics to add to my argument, hoping I could strengthen my point using numbers as well as words.

Little did I know what I was in for. While I’ve searched for statistics many times (not always with success), I thought I’d be able to find what I was looking for this time around. But the numbers I wanted turned out to be frustratingly elusive. I was looking for three things: the attrition rate (on average) from Canadian PhD programs; the proportion of PhD graduates who land tenure-track jobs (either immediately or within, say, five years); and the proportion of Canadian university teaching staff who have non-permanent (contract) and/or part-time positions.

While those numbers probably won’t tell a happy story, I was surprised to have so much trouble finding them. I didn’t even make it to the attrition statistic yet, because the other two took up so much time; from what I observed, attrition is not a focus in spite of the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) pointing out that higher enrollment has not translated into increased numbers of PhD graduates. That’s one example of how the main focus seems to be on enrollment and graduation — what went “right” — as opposed to attrition, which is considered “failure.”

The second example, that of PhDs who find tenure-track work, should have been a cinch given the heightened concern with this issue among graduate students and faculty. I had trouble believing that no-one had produced a study about this, but sure enough, there was nothing straightforward available. How this crucial research could be missing in action is something of a mystery (this was the closest thing I found so far).

Lastly, the proportion of non-tenured faculty is an important number to track in a context where academic hiring trends have been shifting for some time, and these directly affect PhD students and graduates. After a frustrating search through graduate survey results and through research reports produced by a number of different organizations, I finally turned up one Statistics Canada article that compared employment in the teaching profession between 1999 and 2005, based on data from the Labour Force Survey. There seemed to be nothing that was more recent and comprehensive, and almost all the numbers I found relating to academic hiring were focused on full-time faculty (or on one institution only).

During this process I noticed that the graduate student surveys seemed to provide a very thin snapshot — rather a grainy black-and-white photocopy — of results. Asking whether students are “satisfied” with their PhD program experiences (as the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey does) seems like a rather limited way of discovering what’s going on in graduate education, considering the issues involved. The SED seems to have ended with a data set from 2007-2008; its results have been used alongside the Canadian Graduates Survey (CGS) to produce a picture of PhD career outcomes, but once again this is a surprisingly foggy image. Graduates planning to work in the “education services industry” are classified into one large group — no mention of full time, part time, university or college, permanent or contract.

This is not to say that I wouldn’t like access to qualitative research on these issues, too. I think well-designed surveys produce information that is a good start, but we also need to develop qualitative investigations to find the stories behind those numbers. For example, the SED shows up the trend that mainly young, single men in the life sciences and other STEM areas tend to be those who leave Canada after the PhD for further training and job opportunities in other countries. This tells us about the effects of gender, life circumstances, and area of research on the career paths of PhD graduates. Also worth noting is the significant amount of attention given (in the survey results) to migration of PhD graduates; this relates to the concern for building national “human capital.”

It’s disturbing to me that even given the expansion PhD enrollments, and the emphasis placed on graduate education and its role in the economy, so little information seems to be available about what is happening to PhD students and graduates. There’s also a larger point to my complaint about having a hard time finding these numbers. Statistics are a political issue. Though they can be superficial, they’re still better than nothing and they can highlight important trends. This is why it’s disturbing that the current Canadian government does not seem to place much faith in research (funding has been cut from other important surveys as well). I think we have to ask, if this is happening in education research, where else is it happening?

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / March 19, 2012 at 09:14

    It seems particularly odd given the policy push, by provincial governments at least, to increase the number of PhDs. The stated logic is that the economy needs them. Funny that we have no statistical evidence of where they are going in the economy once the are finished.

    Add that to the concerns raised in University Affairs a while ago about whether philosophy departments are hiring graduates of Canadian PhD programmes, an article I understand brought a large number of comments, many contesting the central claim, and the need for some actual numbers seems greater.

    If the proportion of all PhD students who end up in secure academic positions is too hard to calculate, the proportion of recent hires who studied in Canada should be much less so.

  2. Melonie / March 20, 2012 at 17:21

    Thanks Jo–you’re right, also I believe the (federal) S&T policy has a section “People advantage” that is a discussion of developing human capital, particularly graduate students in STEM areas. Not coincidentally those are the PhD grads most likely to move to the US or other countries, for jobs and postdoctoral work. Actually the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC, 2010+) and the Vanier awards (2008+) are part of the same strategy I think (and the Banting postdocs). Strategy is using targeted, merit-based funding to make Canada competitive in the “global market for talent”, i.e. Vaniers are available to international students while other SSHRC graduate awards are not.

    As to the question of nationality, if we follow the logic of meritocracy then universities should hire the most “excellent” candidate (…criteria-?) whether or not that person is Canadian. Is there some reason why Canadian PhDs would be considered less “excellent”? That in and of itself should be cause for more research into if/where/when they’re hired, as well as to what kind of academic professionalization they have access during their time in a graduate programme.

  3. Sean Manning / March 20, 2012 at 19:51

    As a graduate student considering the likely outcomes if I get a PhD, I was also surprised by this. Quantitative data from one’s own country is fundamental to understanding one’s chances of getting an academic job, but I have not had a lot of success finding it.

    It seems that the highly specialized nature of academic training makes things complicated, though. Data for all fields, and all programs, wouldn’t be very useful for someone who wants to do a doctorate in physics as a mid-ranking Canadian program, because the market for theoretical physicists is different from the market for American historians or specialists in Chinese language and literature, and because graduates of famous programs with a good reputation in their field are said to have much more success than graduates of other programs.

  4. Zarko / March 20, 2012 at 21:10

    Let’s be honest. The reason for expansion of the graduate programs had very little to do with the actual academic labour market. What it has done, in fact, has strengthened the hand of central administration in not having to give any concessions to the growing mass of contingent labour because a large graduate pool is also a large labour pool. It very much plays into the neoliberal discourse of “competition” that has been naturalized in the academic environment. Central admin will not provide these stats, reposing on the excuse that they lack the resources to track and maintain these. So, short answer: the reason why these stats are not available (or even recorded) is that administration does not want to interfere in the cash-cow system of graduate programming nor in any way provide ammunition for the casual labour force in collective bargaining.

  5. Melonie Fullick / March 21, 2012 at 06:11

    I agree with the point about contingent labour–which is why I want the numbers–except that you’ll find the institutional stats are more likely to be available than nationwide, systematic comparisons (which are so hard anyway because of how Canada’s education systems work). I do have statistics from York University, for example–they’re in the factbook–and they show the numbers for contract faculty (section 8c). However I seriously doubt that every institution is making this kind of information publicly available, and it’s selective–certainly the PhD attrition/employment stats are not there.

    Another thing is that the government’s policies don’t really seem oriented to training more tenured profs; they seem to want people to go into other sectors of the economy, not to become contingent faculty. What university administrations want (e.g. convenient cheap academic labour) might be an entirely different matter. And, how grad students are trained (to expect to be TT profs) is another thing as well.

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