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Professionals in High Demand


Those who know me might recall a certain penchant I have for making terrible acronyms (or jokes in general) and I can’t believe that this one has escaped me for so long:

PHD = Professionals in High Demand

This tidy little phrase underscores many of the issues that we have written about on this site as we try to resolve two apparently competing ideas:

  1. Canada has a small population and should encourage education at the highest levels to gain an edge in the “knowledge economy” (i.e.: award more PhDs)
  2. Doctoral programs across the country focus on training professors and fall short where the 80% of PhDs who won’t become professors are concerned, resulting in many dissatisfied and unproductive doctoral students (i.e.: award fewer PhDs)

In 1990, Stanford economist Paul Romer produced a seminal article entitled Endogenous Technological Change which argues that the rate of growth in an economy is strongly linked to human capital.  This and many subsequent articles and reports have served as the base for much scholarship (and public policy) that has encouraged the training of more PhDs in order for countries to remain competitive in the modern world.

Over the last few weeks, a number of people have forwarded me an article (thanks!) that appeared in The Economist entitled The disposable academic which asserts that for many, doing a PhD is a complete waste of time.  It goes on to quote poor salaries, exploitation by supervisors and oversupply (and subsequent competition for jobs) as the main reasons for one not to undertake a PhD.

Another analysis comes from Jeff Sharom who poses a very interesting series of questions in his 2008 article entitled Do We Produce too Many Biomedical Trainees?

Is the purpose of PhD training to select and cultivate the most promising future PI ((Principal Investigator – typically a professor who leads a research team)) candidates or to provide a foundation for multiple career paths? Is the goal of the system to create science or scientists?

In the short term I feel that the former strategies (i.e.: support the best and the brightest and fund lots of mega science now) might get the most support, but our longer term prospects might well benefit from the latter (i.e.: more highly qualified scientists inside and outside of the academy).  I worry that we are skewed so heavily toward producing an excellent cohort of driven researchers that we fail to consider the substantial economic and social costs of alienating the majority of trainees ((Mostly anecdotal evidence, but I have heard too many stories of being “cut off” by supervisors after deciding to pursue a non-academic career for it not to be considered)).

So why did I start this article off with the Professionals in High Demand acronym?  In essence, I think that it is an excellent illustration for why we have not yet resolved the more vs. fewer PhD argument:

There is certainly a demand for people with doctoral degrees ((perhaps most easily evidenced by the low unemployment rates in this cadre of workers)) – the interesting point comes, however, when you ask “what skills are being demanded?”.  I contend that the bulk of employers are seeking technically capable researchers that can answer questions in a rigorous manner ((some employers are simply looking to boast having a team of PhD-holding researchers working on it i.e.: they want their employees to appear qualified)).  These skills are certainly meant to be part of a PhD program, but what else does a PhD give you – research independence?  critical thinking skills?  Would industry, media, or business careers necessarily desire the latter – perhaps, but perhaps not.

Maybe if we want to train professional scientists – then we should do just that (e.g.: law school, med school, trade school, etc), but if we want to produce PhD holders who will occupy many diverse careers, then it seems impractical to train them all as if they will become future professors ((as we do for doctors and lawyers in medical and law school)).  The current university structure could be a major player in developing the stigma that is attached to “leaving” academia and poorly equip its PhD holders to do anything outside of the academic stream, leading to many feelings of inadequacy/failure in our top level of education.

A university degree of any sort used to be the ticket to a well paying job, but just as a bachelors degree has become mandatory for many jobs, a graduate degree is quickly becoming the new minimum standard. Is the PhD next?  Has it already happened?  What exactly is a PhD meant to represent?

These questions are entire thesis topics in themselves, but in the end, I think we have to either embrace the idea that the core characteristics of a doctoral degree have changed as we admit more people and encourage broader uptake OR we need to sort out a well-respected advanced professional program for bright people who want to be research specialists with the purpose of feeding them out into other fields ((I have a good friend who has done well after getting her laboratory sciences degree from a college – increasing and further improving these types of programs would help to fill the need for mega-science operations that need highly skilled specialised labour)) .

If we choose to embrace the changes, then universities need to move full force into supporting these non-academic career choices and emphasize the development of human capital that will be exported into the real world.  This means good programming for doctoral students who do not want to become academics – things like the career services folks at my current university are starting to dump resources into.
A very wise person once told me that time spent on figuring out what you do NOT want to do is often the most valuable time in your life.  I think we have to look at universities (even graduate programs) as a place where a career decision is made, not as a place where you go to simply obtain your qualification.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Terri / December 30, 2010 at 22:04

    Dave — many thanks for this. I take The Economist article as a good sign. It has a fairly good international reach and is widely ready by the business sector. The underemployment of PhDs should be their (the business sector’s) concern. This waste of talent is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed not only by academics, but also by government and industry. I think you’re spot on when you say that “a well-respected advanced professional program” is needed, but the ‘culture’ of business tends not to recognize the skills attained by PhDs across the disciplines and this needs to change. In the humanities (my area) some voices within academia have already called for some level of training — in concert with business people — to help place highly specialised researchers into the non-academic world:
    Now we need to persuade universities, government, and the business world that a similar “micro-M.B.A. curriculum” is crucial to stream talented PhDs into non-academic careers, to the benefit of all parties.

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  3. SB / January 1, 2011 at 22:58

    Great post, Dave. I would love to hear more examples of how preparation for work in industry, govt, non-profit etc. sectors can be incorporated into PhD training programs, beyond the occasional workshop and/or guest lecture.
    I wonder if any of your readers have taken part in internship programs like MITACS-Accelerate ( Being able to work in your field, but outside of the academy, for a short period of time during your training sounds, to me, like a great way to prep yourself for life in “the real world” post graduation. But I wonder how participation in programs like these might affect the time taken to completion of a grad degree, and I wonder how challenging it is to find interesting and relevant positions in the life sciences.
    This post reminded me of a conversation with a former colleague who completed her degree under the supervision of a professor who was also heavily involved as a scientist in a company, and so she called it an “industry PhD”. Her experience seemed colored by a difficult balancing act between carrying out research that would contribute to the company’s IP, and pursuing more basic (and publishable) research questions. I wonder if any of your readers have been involved in a similar kind of training program, and if so, whether they have faced similar challenges. I get the feeling that these types of arrangements, where working for a company/outside agency is a direct component of an individual’s graduate training, are quite rare in Canada. But I’d like to think that with adequate transparency and oversight, they could have the potential to produce more job-ready PhDs and to bridge some of the communication gaps between industry and academia.

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