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The Black Hole

Notch 1 in the STIC: The production of PhDs – What do we do with them?

BY BETH | JUL 12 2011

In this first installment of our summer series on the Science, Technology and Innovation Council’s 2010 State of the Nation report, I’m going to take a look at some of the data on who’s getting an education in science and engineering in Canada these days.
The report – at least the section I’m talking about today – is based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment and Statistics Canada. Some of the interesting points include:

  • 15-year-old Canadians rank in the top 10 of OECD countries for math and science in 2009 ((Note that the scores of Canadian students remained relatively stable compared to the 2006 results, but their ranking compared to other countries went down as students from some other countries improved their scores over that time frame.)).
  • 80% of 15-19 year-old Canadians are pursuing a formal education, which is lower than the OECD average
  • But Canada ranks 1st in OECD countries for adults (ages 25–64 years) in terms of the percentage of the population with a post-secondary education (49%)
  • The numbers of Canadian students in science and engineering at the undergraduate level increased (18% increase in the number of science undergraduate degrees, 9% increase in the number of engineering undergraduate degrees) in 2008 compared to 2005
  • Between 2005 and 2008, there has been a big increase in the number of Canadian students getting PhDs – specifically, the number of science-based doctoral degrees increased by 63.7% and the number of engineering doctoral degrees increased by 42.1%
  • Despite our increased number of science-based PhDs, Canada still remains low in the number of science-based PhDs per capita – dropping from 20th to 23rd among OECD countries on this measure between the 2008 and the 2010 reports.

So, what does this all tell us. Essentially, we seem to be doing a pretty decent job at convincing young people to pursue an education in science and engineering, although we still have a ways to go in terms of getting our numbers up on a per capita basis compared to other countries.

This all begs the question, though, of what those science-based graduates do once they graduate. It’s something that we’ve talked about a fair bit here on the Black Hole and the STIC report gives us some unhappy data on it. Canada had higher unemployment rates for science-based PhDs (~3-4%) compared to other OECD countries (e.g., in the US, it’s about ~1-1.5%).  Specifically, in 2006 Canada had the highest rate of unemployment for the medical sciences -3%- and engineering -4%- and the third highest rate of unemployment for the natural sciences -3%- among the OECD countries: the data are from 2006.  So, it seems that we are pumping out more and more PhDs, but we aren’t exactly sure what to do with them once we have them. Dave recently wrote about exactly this issue in the posting Professionals in High Demand, wherein he also links to some really good  articles on the topic, so I’m not going to rehash that here, but rather I suggest you read that posting (and those articles). Essentially, this gets us to thinking that we need to change what we are doing.  If we don’t have meaningful work for people to do once they’ve completed their PhDs, why are we pushing for more people to get PhDs? It does seem rather cruel to encourage people to spend 4-8 years of their early adult life (during which they could be making some decent money and building a career) working like a dog for less than minimum wage, only to have nothing to offer them once they get to the other side. On the other hand, if we do think we need to keep training more PhDs for our “knowledge economy,” as the STIC report (along with many others) have suggested, then we need to figure out what, exactly, those “knowledge economy” type jobs are, and how to support the creation of those jobs – be they in public service, non-profits, industry, or academia.

Interestingly, other countries seem to have figured out what to do with their PhDs – notably, Portugal has both the highest per capita production of science-based PhDs *and* the lowest unemployment rates of those PhDs!  Sweden, Finland, Australia, and Norway all have higher science-based PhD graduates per capita and lower unemployment rates of those PhDs than Canada. Perhaps we need to start looking to what some of these other countries are doing.

Also, looking at unemployment figures only tells a small part of the story. I mean, if 3-4% of science-based PhDs are unemployed, that means 96-97% of them have jobs. But what jobs do they have? We know that, despite what the average student thinks when they start their PhD, most of them won’t be getting tenured faculty positions. Some of them will, and many others will find work that uses their skills and knowledge in government, public service, non-profits, and industry, or in non-tenured type roles in academia. But I also know a fair few who have work, but are either underemployed (i.e., have only part-time work when they want full-time jobs), insecurely employed (e.g., in temporary positions that are grant-funded or as sessional instructors at colleges/universities – and thus could be cut at any time) or employed in positions that don’t require their level of expertise (i.e., wasting their potential or being underpaid for the work they are doing). In fact, recently I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues who are coming to the end of their PhDs approach me with a “Can I buy you a coffee and pick your brain on how the hell I’m going to get a job?” And honestly, I wish I had an answer for them. But perhaps by the time we work our way through this STIC report – and hopefully with some lively discussion in the comments section of these postings – we’ll at least have some ideas!

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  1. […] Beth’s July 12, 2011 posting, The report – at least the section I’m talking about today – is based on data from the […]

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