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Speculative Diction

More PhDs? Define the “demand” first


In a post last year I wrote about how usually, when it’s argued there is an “overproduction” of PhDs, “demand” for doctoral graduates is being implicitly defined by the number of tenure-stream jobs available while “overproduction” usually points to “not enough academic jobs for doctoral graduates.” So how do you define the demand for doctorates when we’re not just talking about faculty jobs anymore? I’d been thinking about this when I saw two recent articles from Brenda Brouwer, President of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS): one in University Affairs titled, “Canada needs more PhDs”—and a similar piece in the Globe and Mail, “Let’s end the myth that PhDs are only suited for the ivory tower”.

The argument goes something like this: while there are more PhDs than available academic jobs, the value of the PhD needs to be recognized beyond the academy; and while universities have done their part to help PhDs professionalize, other sectors should be stepping up to recruit these highly-educated people given the benefits they bring. Therefore, policies and supports should be put in place, not just by universities but also by government and other agents, to enable PhDs to make these transitions.

I understand where this is coming from; in the past, I’ve been a proponent of encouraging PhDs to prepare non-academic employment and also mentoring and supporting them in doing so, since a relatively small proportion of grads end up on the tenure track. But I still wouldn’t call for “more PhDs.” Why? Because if we’re going to frame this in terms of tangible results, and primarily in economic terms, there are some questions for which we need the answers; and if universities are going to be expecting other organizations to step up and actively embrace the benefits of hiring PhDs, I think there are a few points to consider with regards to how universities seem to be handling their end of things right now.

Firstly, PhDs are discussed as a “talent pool”, an already-valuable stock of human capital to be drawn on by the state for the purpose of economic development. They contribute “the raw assets of brains, curiosity and ambition,” associated with innovation, creativity, achievement, and ultimately, productivity and economic value. So where is the research explaining how this human capital is transformed into economic and social worth, how it “[infiltrates] all sectors” and improves how they operate? Even if everyone agrees that having more PhDs in the workforce leads to the kinds of beneficial outcomes we’re after, how do we actually prove it? If there’s a call for more PhDs—and more support for them from non-academic agents—this is a question that needs an answer.

The second question follows from the first one: even if we can prove that increased numbers of PhDs would contribute to these outcomes, could we show that PhDs are necessary to producing them? Or would we see the same outcomes with Master’s level degrees and professional experience or additional specific training? How would we know? While doctoral education certainly helps cultivate skills and qualities that are desirable in non-academic contexts, it would help to have some proof that these translate in ways that other qualifications would not.

There’s a specific line of logic operating here: Canadian businesses aren’t known for their R&D performance, and this has long been a policy bugbear. Arguing that PhDs are key to increased innovation in non-academic sectors, means making a direct connection between the perennial problem of innovation (or lack of it), and the need for highly educated workers. It then makes sense to call for support for this cause, because it can be cast a way of addressing the R&D conundrum. This in turn links PhD outcomes to competitiveness, since other countries outperform Canada in terms of research and development expenditures and productivity” because they “actively integrate PhDs into all sectors of their economies.”

But are these countries outperforming Canada because of this, or are there other (perhaps more important) contextual factors at play? Such comparisons don’t necessarily even support the argument for more PhDs. Rather, they point to a need for more HQP throughout all sectors—which isn’t the same thing. Another problem is that of causation: increased integration of such candidates is more likely to be an outcome of organizational decisions to engage in research, rather than a driver of those decisions.

Lastly—Brouwer mentions “the pressing responsibilities of the academy to ensure that our training programs adapt,” then goes on to place strong emphasis on how responsibility must also be shouldered beyond the university. This almost makes it sound as if academia has already completed its transformation, and that the problem is how other sectors need to be changed. What have universities been doing in this regard, and is it really as diverse and accommodating as is described in these two articles? How many programs are able and willing to “integrate … ‘real world’ opportunities within the PhD program of study” or have done so already? How exactly will we “give graduate schools, businesses, organizations and community stakeholders the incentive and support to break down … silos and clear the path for PhDs”? We have some fine examples of this happening, but I think there’s still a gap between everyday experience in doctoral programs and the rhetoric about professionalization.

Based on what I’ve seen, heard, and read, there are still widespread problems even with the basics such as supervisory support. If we really need more PhDs, perhaps universities should try harder to help all their doctoral students graduate? Surely if a significant proportion of students are still withdrawing without completing, then we’re already depriving ourselves of a valuable resource? It seems universities aren’t doing all they could to ensure that those already recruited are also finishing their degrees—and that would be a helpful start.

As an organization representing universities with graduate programs, CAGS isn’t likely to suggest universities reduce their doctoral enrolments; at the same time, it’s becoming impossible to ignore a situation where more PhDs are working outside the university than in it. But questioning the causal relationship between doctoral education and desired outcomes isn’t the same as undermining the value of PhDs or assuming they’re “best suited to the academy.” After all, as Brouwer also points out, doctoral graduates have already been working with great success in non-academic realms. I’m on board with the argument that we should support PhDs in building connections and relationships beyond academe, but as for enrolling (though not necessarily graduating) even more PhDs? Until some of these pesky questions are answered … maybe we should cross that bridge when we come to it.

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. Marianne Ariganello / March 16, 2016 at 15:00

    Excellent article. I often read (with dread) articles that claim we need more PhDs, since I agree that either the data they are using to justify their hypothesis is limited or is biased. The other question that I think is relevant (and needs some data to answer) is whether ALL types of PhDs are EQUALLY needed. Do we need more social science PhDs AND more engineering/science PhDs AND more humanities PhDs. If indeed the majority of PhDs will be placed outside of their immediate research area (which is often the case for PhDs working outside of academia), maybe a more multi-disciplinary PhD is what is needed, instead of a PhD focused on an small aspect of a discipline. In that case, it is a different kind of PhD that is needed.

  2. Sheri / March 17, 2016 at 12:01

    Thank you gor this excellent analysis of the two articles by the President of CAGS.

    Calling for more PhDs because so many MPs have one and Canada lags other countries without taking responsibility for the absymal failure of research programs in Canada to keep stats (attrition, time to completion) and analyze their performance for the sake of bettering it, misses a prime source of greater PhD production.

    Tacking on optional professional skills development opportunities or three minute thesis contests does not remake a program.

    The too silent and passive voice of graduate student leadership needs to be factored into the lack of action on PhD program quality in Canada.

    The insights of the doctoral student stood out as the silver bullet for meaningful renewal in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, yet no graduate students organization in Canada or graduate school deans or CAGS its self has put into place processes to capture insights and move them forward.

  3. Cass / March 18, 2016 at 07:54

    Canada (or at least Ontario) already increased doctoral capacity once, ten years ago. It was a total disaster, at least in my field: standards were watered down, more students dropped out before completion, and to date, none — that’s right, not a single one — of my cohort or the one after mine has found a long-term academic position. As someone who’s been a sessional to ‘pay bills’ (ha ha?) while actively seeking employment outside a university for 28 months now, I think Canada needs to produce maybe 2 humanities PhDs every year. Let the MA be the diploma mill degree.

  4. Philip G Hultin / March 18, 2016 at 10:52

    The blog suggests that universities should strive to “ensure that those already recruited are also finishing their degrees” and I am not sure that this is necessarily the right focus. Certainly universities should never put unnecessary barriers in the way of student completion, and should remove any such barriers that currently exist. But, is the university responsible for the individual student’s progress through a PhD program and ultimately whether that student succeeds or fails? Surely that is at least partly up to the graduate student?

    Student time-to-completion and success rates are popular topics among university administrators these days. Administrators tend to think that short time-to-completion is somehow a measure of the quality of the program. Likewise, they think that high success rates are intrinsically a “good thing” and this blogger seems to endorse this view. I wonder about this, because in my experience not every student who can get into a graduate program is capable of successfully finishing it – for a variety of reasons that may have little to do with intellectual capability. We take in students and invest time and resources in them, but this does not mean that in every case the student can or should receive the degree. Ultimately, it’s a matter of balancing quality with quantity, and that’s why we have candidacy exams and thesis defenses. Unless failure is possible, what is the meaning of success?

  5. JC Veletta / March 18, 2016 at 11:15

    No, Canada does not need more PhDs; already we have too many. The problem is that the PhD in Canada is now a very diluted degree. Like the U.K. 3 year PhD, Canada is moving down that lane. It is very difficult to respect a 3 year PhD. A Canadian with a good PhD (6 to 7 years) will have all the ingredients to make it both in academia and industry. Rather than the argument being on the supply and demand, the universities should try and make sure that each student takes about 6 to 8 years to complete their PhD. There is no place in academia for a 3, 4 or 5 year PhD.