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Does Canada Produce Too Many PhDs?

Dec 13, 2011
Daniel Munro
Principal Research Associate
Industry and Business Strategy

Three books profoundly shaped my intellectual and professional development when I was a graduate student. Plato’s Republic illustrated the importance of critically examining conventional wisdom. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty provided a powerful defense of freedom of thought and speech against the tyranny of social conformity. And Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius’s So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide for M.A.'s and Ph.D's Seeking Careers Outside the Academy opened my eyes to non-academic careers and practical strategies to pursue them.

To the best of my knowledge, Basalla and Debelius’ book is rarely, if ever, assigned to graduate students. It should be. If Canadian graduate students and their academic advisors read it and incorporate its insights into their approach to education and training, then thousands of newly-minted PhDs would likely be better prepared to enter the job market and make great contributions to economic and social prosperity.

A Tenure-Track Reality Check

Many, perhaps most, doctoral students want to land an academic position when they complete their degrees. Moreover, most doctoral programs are structured in ways that view academia as the primary, if not the only legitimate, career path. Students are taught to think, research, and communicate in ways that prepare them to publish in peer-reviewed journals, make presentations to audiences of academic peers, and teach subsequent cohorts of graduate students to do the same.

The reality, however, is that few graduates will find academic employment. Less than a third of Canadian PhDs will secure a tenure-track position.1 A handful more will cobble together part-time teaching contracts, but many of them will eventually leave academia. The majority find employment elsewhere—in industry, government, and non-governmental organizations.

Too Many, or Too Few, PhDs?

This apparent mismatch between academia’s supply of, and demand for, PhD graduates has prompted some observers to ask whether Canada produces too many PhDs. A fair question; but it misses the point. In fact, we probably don’t produce enough—or enough of the right ones.

The Conference Board’s recent analysis of Advanced Skills and Innovation reveals that Canada lags well-behind 17 international peers in annual PhD graduates. We also lag behind in innovation performance—ranking 14th out of 17 countries and receiving a “D” grade. The two findings are not unrelated. Looking at Canada and its 17 international peers together we see that those countries with a low proportion of business spending on R&D—one indicator of innovation performance—also score “D” grades on the share of PhD graduates. In that case, increasing the number of PhDs may be part of an approach to improving innovation performance.

Practical PhDs

The number of PhDs is not the only issue. Many of the PhDs that we do produce do not have the right skills, attitudes, and behaviours to thrive in non-academic settings and to contribute to business and social innovation.

This should change. Canadian graduate students should have opportunities to spend time in non-academic settings as part of their education. In the Netherlands, more than two-thirds of PhD students participate in internships with industry, government, and other non-academic organizations during their studies, while 55 per cent of German and 23 per cent of British students have similar opportunities.2 In Canada, non-academic internships for PhD students are limited. Not surprisingly, these countries outperform Canada on innovation.

To be sure, Canada has good programs for undergraduate and other non-PhDs students. The University of Waterloo’s co-op program requires students to complete semester-long paid internships. And student involvement in applied research collaborations between Canadian colleges and businesses is leading to improvements in their innovation and employability skills, as the Conference Board found in a recent study, Innovation Catalysts and Accelerators: The Impact of Ontario Colleges’ Applied Research.

There are signs that the situation may be improving. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, for example, has called on the federal government to commit up to $15 million to develop a “program of 500, 12-month paid internships, valued at $30,000—that would be matched by the host employer—that integrate master’s and PhD students and graduates into the labour market, especially in small- and medium enterprises.”3 Though modest, such an initiative would be welcome and might also signal to faculty and students that they need to think about and prepare for non-academic employment.

Making the Unconventional Conventional

At present, many PhD students are enrolled in programs whose faculty values only the academic career path. The mere mention of a career in business is sometimes tantamount to heresy. Students who want to explore non-academic careers often do so without support. But as Mill wondered, “Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?”4

Taking inspiration from Plato and Mill, Canadian universities should critically examine the conventional mindset and its impacts. We need to find ways to produce more PhD graduates who have been exposed to, and are prepared for, non-academic careers. Until then, the best advice for graduate students may be to pick up a copy of Basalla and Debelius’s book, drop their timid characters, and do their best to pursue “bold, vigorous, [and] independent” educational paths to fulfilling, non-academic careers.

1  Rosanna Tamburri, “Give us the dirt on jobs,” University Affairs (January 11, 2010).

2  Olga Stachova cited in Leo Charbonneau, “Is Canada producing too many PhDs? Yes, no and maybe.University Affairs (November 30, 2011).

3  AUCC, Canada’s universities: Mapping the way forward (November 24, 2011).

4  Mill, On Liberty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 35.

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