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The Black Hole

University Affairs commentary on our CSPC panel


On November 30, University Affairs posted two articles  that summarise and discuss the major issues that came up in our session at the 3rd Annual Canadian Science Policy Conference:

  1. Is Canada producing too many PhDs? Yes, no and maybe
  2. The problem with PhD training in Canada

It was really great to have Léo in attendance at this session as his journalistic eye and his vast experience covering issues in Canadian universities allows him to clearly distil the key points from our session – I strongly encourage a read through.

After reading these, you may ask:  “What exactly was accomplished?”, and this is a question that I have reflected on myself since the conference as well.  For one, I was very pleased that we could get a stage to present this issue – many people fail to appreciate the resources that get poured into the training of scientists and what an enormous waste it is to have the vast majority of them aiming for something they will simply not become (as opposed to those who train in medicine, law, and accounting who will generally become doctors, lawyers, and accountants).

The second item is one that the UA articles really bring home.  We need to encourage people in PhD programs (and in postdocs) to look beyond academia.  I would not suggest a mass exodus by any stretch, but with a less than 20% rate of becoming a tenure track professor, one owes it to themselves to consider what else they might do with their high level of training.  We need people to actively pursue non-academic careers, and not fall victim to labels of “failing” in academia.

Thanks to the University Affairs folks, as well as to Mehrdad Hariri and his team for putting off a great conference and a special personal thanks to one team member (Marcius Extavour) for helping the Education and Training of Scientists session get organized in timely manner.

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. SubC / December 4, 2011 at 19:28

    Great article but I would suggest that we look deeper into the 20% figure of PhDs entering academia. Is it indeed a real statistic? Is it based on people that have done their PhDs in Canada? What about different disciplines? In my own experience, a lot of folks that go for a PhD in computer science/engineering won’t even consider an academic job. A large number (plurality if not a majority) of biomedical PhDs definitely expect a non-academic position (research associate, medical/dental school, biotech etc).
    So the more important question might be how many that wanted an academic career in the first place actually ended up in one? The outcomes of postdoctoral researchers (at least in biomedical and chemistry) may indicate something more appropriate.

  2. Dave / December 5, 2011 at 10:56

    Hi SubC,
    As always – thanks for the comment. I know that we (myself in particular) are guilty of throwing the 20% number out there. It’s based on the statistics from the National Postdoc Association in the US (which you and I have agreed does not fairly represent Canada, but does give an indication that there may be a similar set of issues at play)
    So – two things:
    1) I’ve collected a set of recent articles on this issue and the charting of career aspirations in life sciences that I’ll be posting sometime in the next week – stay tuned for this as I think it will address some of the excellent points you bring up in your comment.
    2) The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars has as one of its main priorities to provide such benchmarking stats in Canada (both in terms of Canadians here and away as well as international PDFs training here).
    Hope that helps a little – if you’d be keen to have a longer chat about it, I’m definitely open and would again encourage you (if you felt inclined) to write on this issue or others to give this site and its readers some additional perspective.

  3. SubC / December 13, 2011 at 21:03

    Thanks for the comments, Dave.
    It will be great to see th upcoming articles on the aspiraions and outcomes of Canadian PhDs and postdocs in the biomedical field.
    CAPS does a great job of dealing postdoc issues and I am just re-posting the findings from their survey here.
    (Looking at it, I realize that I’ve been a pretty “typical” postdoc by most parameters!)
    On a related note, is it possible to know the number (or at least a ballpark figure) of academic jobs that are available every year in Canada? If this figure was available , it would make for an interesting comparison with the number of PhDs granted per year… just a thought.
    Keep up the great work !!

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