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Speculative Diction

What’s a PhD for? Report raises more questions than it answers


The Conference Board of Canada (CBoC) has been working on a study about PhDs in Canada, their career paths and contributions to the economy and society, titled Inside and Outside the Academy: Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers. The report, by Jessica Edge and Daniel Munro, was published earlier this week. I was keen to get a look at it because the issues in it relate directly to some of the things I’ve been researching and writing about over the past few years, both in this blog and in my dissertation (for example, in my previous two posts). There still isn’t much solid information available about the PhD in Canada and doctoral students’ choices and experiences, so new research is always a treat.

Full disclosure: I participated as an interviewee in this study, and two of my blog posts are cited by the authors. I had no input other than this (and no idea what the report would look like when finished). Also, it’s a 136-page report and I won’t even attempt to summarize the whole thing here; that’s one reason I’d recommend taking the time to read it, if you have an interest in this issue.

The other reason you should read it is that the media articles about this report have been riddled with problems and narrowly framed to focus primarily on points relating to financial outcomes of the PhD. The latter comprised a relatively short section of the document. There were also inaccuracies; an example is that of one key statistic, namely that 18.6 percent of PhDs work full-time as faculty in universities. This number has been confusing from the start, which is why I wrote a whole post about it back in February. In the CBoC report, it was (unfortunately) rendered as “fewer than 20 per cent,” which in a Globe and Mail article became “about 20 percent,” which was then (because of lack of explanation) assumed to indicate the proportion of PhDs who have tenure-stream jobs (which it does not). One CBC article didn’t even bother to get the terms right, conflating “full professor” and “full-time” professor.

So in short, I think there are a lot of different ways this research could have been presented, but the media coverage has brought our attention primarily to one angle, i.e. financial outcomes. What I find more important is that those (and other) outcomes are affected by a particular dynamic described in the report: that non-academic employers often don’t see the value in PhDs, while academics often don’t see value in non-academic careers. The result is that PhDs lose out both ways, lacking support and suffering a difficult transition to the job market after they complete their degrees.

Universities could argue, in response, that they already provide professionalization programs and services and that there’s plenty of evidence of these (for example, Rose 2012). This is true, but while the programs and services exist, students aren’t necessarily making use of them. If there is a cultural issue where academic careers are seen as signifying success, then resources might not be integrated into graduate programs or introduced through supervision. In fact the way resources are often presented as add-ons or “alternatives” can highlight the assumption that academic professionalization is the most important priority for students.

A second point is that the PhD isn’t, and shouldn’t be, designed to cater to the needs of (non-academic) employers. In this case, it’s important to remember that the PhD is often assumed to cater to an employer already: the university. Yet, this is not where most students will end up working. Should the degree have any relation to what graduates end up doing with it?

Thirdly, if doctoral graduates are actually doing pretty well in their post-PhD careers (more on this below), why should universities have to change anything? After all, eventually things are working out. But the problem here is that grads are struggling at the outset in ways that could be mitigated. I think changes are necessary, but this is about much more than what doctoral programs actually do—it’s also about what both students and employers think the PhD is for.

To return to the media for a moment, this is why the line taken in much of the coverage of the CBoC report is frustrating. The Globe and Mail’s original headline, “Earning a PhD in Canada is probably not worth the time or money,” prefaced a description that focussed almost solely on the economic returns to the PhD (which were judged inadequate). Not one person I know who has a PhD did it for the economic returns that they calculated in advance. Maybe the argument implicit here is that this is what we all should have been doing? That we should be rational actors in a market for the credential that will provide maximum returns. Call me an idealist, but I’m pretty sure we can be practical without reducing ourselves to that.

The Globe’s editors know there’s a big audience of people out there who want to tell PhDs they’ve made terrible life choices; that’s how media economics operate (and the article got a lot of attention). But it’s not students’ choice to do doctoral work that is inherently the problem here; and it’s not that the degree provides no “reward.” In spite of the initial hit to earnings (from not entering the job market after the Bachelor’s or Master’s degree), PhDs who don’t pursue academic careers tend to “land on their feet” and do well in terms of career and earnings. Surely that’s still good news for anyone who wants to argue for the inherent value of intellectual training?

If the argument is that Canada should be increasing its numbers of doctoral graduates, then we should be asking “why?” Considering the very different explanations we hear about the purpose of “producing PhDs”—and the resources required to support them—it’s a fair question, and I think this study helps to open up the discussion. On that score, many academics may dislike the study because it assumes that it’s actually a good thing to have PhDs working in sectors other than academe (not just for economic reasons). But because doctoral graduates have already been moving into those “other” careers for decades, this situation presents us with a deeper conundrum about the goals of the PhD, and how they should be reflected in the structure and content of the degree.

So what if the PhD isn’t “training” for any one type of career? What happens if you think of it as a rigorous educational process that’s highly individualized, involving specialized scholarship but also the development of skills that are useful across a broad range of contexts; a process demanding creativity, perseverance, autonomy, and depth of thought. You might have a specific idea about where you want to go with it—or you might not. Maybe you arrive with one or two ideas in mind and change them radically by the end (I know I did). The process itself could be a means of developing a “direction” and pursuing it, with the goal of developing a career from that.

Does that sound too process-based, too vague, too dependent upon the whim of serendipity? It’s just a description of what’s already going on for many students, re-framed to subtract the assumption that a PhD is, and traditionally has been, about producing proto-professors. We know that most PhDs in Canada do not work as tenure-stream faculty. If this were a problem that universities found intolerable—if these outcomes were seen as a dramatic failure of graduate education—you’d think a solution might have been found by now. Instead, from some critics we see the argument that the PhD itself has been “devalued” through overproduction of graduates (in spite of significant attrition), all the while no-one is interested in reducing the number of PhDs enrolled, which would be the logical consequence of some of the assumptions being made.

It seems there’s a contradiction here between the long-term reality and the ideals that are being projected onto it, both in policy and in practice; and doctoral students and graduates are the ones dealing directly with the consequences.

There’s a key element still missing, not just from this report but from other recent studies about the PhD in Canada. We don’t hear the voices of students, and we don’t see any systematic examination of what they actually experience and why they decide to follow this supposedly “unprofitable” path. Too much of what we “know” right now is based on little more than anecdotal evidence. The high levels of attrition, the “irrational” behaviour that’s dismissed as a problem with lack of information or poor judgement, the blame for issues occurring during the degree, all these things could be fleshed out by actually asking students to tell us what’s going on at their end. If that sounds obvious—and to me it does—then why hasn’t the research been done? When so much money is being pumped into doctoral education, the need for such a study is clear.

As is so often the case, these are problems of culture and communication that cannot be fixed quickly with a few well-chosen policies and programs. The CBoC’s report has set the stage; here’s hoping we see more research in future that’s designed to address the many issues it raises.

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. Robert M.Donnelly / November 28, 2015 at 18:42

    The only value to a PhD is if you want to spend your life as a tenured Professor at a college or university teaching the same courses over and over again to disinterested students. The research aspect of being a PhD is over rated. I guess if you like to write articles about miniscule subject matter for other PhD’s it’s another angle to consider, but the majority of PhD research papers I have ever seen are boring and invaluable. Outside of academia the definition of a PhD is “Piled Higher and Deeper”.

  2. James Mars, Professor Emeritus, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University / December 3, 2015 at 15:08

    Maybe universities should offer a Ph.D. in serendipity–because chance and circumstance play a larger role than most observers think (economists–I’m looking at you). Actually universities do–fields such as interdisciplinary studies, urban studies, women’s studies and many others offer the student the opportunity to combine the knowledge and methods of several traditional fields to address their research question–but first they have to find that question. All I knew was that I wanted to help address environmental health issues whether at a firm, a non-profit, a government agency, or a university. By fortunate happenstance,
    I ran out of money while working on my dissertation, and applied, was interviewed and was hired by Ryerson–after two weeks in the classroom, I knew I had found my career. For most fields of study there
    are both academic and non-academic careers out there, so over the years I encouraged students to at least complete the degree program they were in (whether it be at the bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral level) in order to give themselves the best credentials for the next step.

    • Rita / June 16, 2016 at 14:36

      And there you have it:

      I encouraged students to at least complete the degree program […] in order to give themselves the BEST CREDENTIAL for the NEXT step.

      I moved to Canada and realized that to find employment anywhere in academia – I needed a doctoral credential as an immigrant, female, various glass ceilings and boxes…) PLUS diverse cultural biases to overcome. So, with a Masters degree already, I went for the BEST CREDENTIAL with the NEXT steps in mind. Money was the LAST thing on my mind. it was a strategic decision. One of the BEST decisions ever! And for the person that spoke about privilege – nothing in my story rings of privilege except for a supportive family and the BEST doctoral supervisor a fortunate person could ever wish for. I am invited to the table, my resume is looked at, I am passionate about the things I care about AND people listen. Suddenly I am able to pursue the NEXT steps (whatever that may be. For now, its just thankfulness and sleep!).

  3. JS / December 9, 2015 at 01:40

    I keep hearing my dismal future being framed around the choice between academia or leaving the ivory tower. But is that really realistic? Does anyone here want to also factor in the recession or the number of layoffs across canada? People are struggling to find any job, let alone a highly skilled job right now. So now i get to be too educated to get an entry level position and facing an economy that is not in the position to be able to invest in research and development. I even work in a applied field and I have to seriously consider removing my education from me resume to be employable.

    It also takes a lot of privilege to be in a position to be able to afford to devote the resources to a PhD. So maybe a lot of PhDs land on their feet based on that privilege and not due to the prosperity of their education. What about us first generation PhDs that were barely able to get to the end of our journey by sacrificing our publication count to paid part-time research jobs/teaching and debt. No mentors. Not even knowing anyone with a PhD outside of a professional setting to be able to turn to for real advice. Yeah, i am privileged to live in a time and place where someone like me was allowed to get a higher education. It is just unfortunate that all that work has just helped me to see that it isn’t even a glass ceiling stopping me, it is a glass box.

  4. Asma Siddiqi / January 11, 2018 at 00:29

    Perhaps PhDs can form a cooperative to establish a university, which is focused on classrooms and quality education, rather than on boardrooms for MBAs who are running universities based on the business model.