PhD Graduates

Key Messages

  • Canada earns a “D” and ranks second to last among the 16 peer countries.
  • Canada has consistently graded a “D” over time.
  • Canada’s poor grade on this indicator may reflect a low demand for advanced skills in the labour market.

Putting PhD graduates in context

Highly skilled people are key to the creation, commercialization, and diffusion of innovation. Doctorate holders are not only the most qualified in terms of educational attainment, but they are also specifically trained to conduct research.

Is Canada at the back of the class?

Almost. Canada’s graduation rate of doctoral students is strikingly low compared with its performance on other measures of education completion (high school, college, and university) and compared with its peers. Canada ranks in second to last place.

This would appear to be a structural issue for Canada, as it consistently produces proportionately fewer PhDs than comparator countries. Despite the importance of PhD graduates to innovation, Canada’s private sector does not provide strong enough incentives for students to strive for advanced science and technology skills and for business management skills. Compared to firms in the U.S., Canadian firms in most industries hire fewer PhD graduates and pay them less; this may be one reason why there are fewer students pursuing doctoral studies in Canada.2

A recent OECD report on Canada’s education performance noted that the poor ranking on PhD skills “may reflect in part low demand for advanced skills in the labour market.”3 As evidence, the report cites a survey of over 1,000 Canadian R&D-performing firms that revealed that only 18 per cent of those firms had PhD holders working as R&D employees.4

Furthermore, Canada’s education system simply does not stimulate enough students to complete post-graduate degrees, especially in the science and technical disciplines that underpin R&D-based innovation, because funding is too widely dispersed among an expanding number of universities. While Canada has an above-average rate of high-school, college, and university completion—which testifies to the effectiveness of the education system for most participants—it does not work as well for the more educated and innovative people at the high-end of the spectrum. Consequently, Canada has been able to fund only a handful of world-class research universities that attract talented people to study in Canada at the doctoral level.

Has Canada’s ranking on PhD graduates improved?

Although Canada increased its number of PhD graduates by 3 per cent per year over the past decade, it has earned a “D” on this indicator since 1998, the earliest year for which internationally comparable data are available. The top spots have consistently been taken by Sweden and Switzerland.

Go for the bronze! How much would Canada need to improve to get a “C”?

Canada ranked 13th out of 16 peer countries in 2000. It slipped to last spot in 2006 and 2007, before moving up one notch to 15th place from 2008 to 2010.

We could ask what it would take for Canada to improve to an “A” level, but even improving to a “C” will be a challenge. Australia, a low-ranked “C” country, has 740,000 fewer people in the 25- to 29-year-old cohort, yet it graduated 400 more PhDs than Canada in 2010. Canada would have needed to graduate 3,200 more PhDs in 2010 to match Australia.

Will Canada see improvement soon?

Canada will remain a “D” player for some time. Its poor performance here is a serious concern that does not bode well for the future. The failure to fund world-class universities is one explanation for Canada’s comparative weaknesses in high-level academic achievement—and its associated weaknesses in innovation. Furthermore, Canada offers fewer employment and pay incentives than do other countries to encourage students to pursue doctoral studies.


1 The 25–29 age cohort was chosen because the OECD reports that this range is typical for advanced research program graduates in our comparator countries. OECD, Education at a Glance 2012 (Paris: OECD, 2012), 539.

2 Industry Canada, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage (Ottawa: Industry Canada, 2007), 31.

3 Calista Cheung, Yvan Guillemette, and Shahrzad Mobasher-Fard, “Tertiary Education: Developing Skills for Innovation and Long-Term Growth in Canada,” OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 991 (Paris: OECD, 2012), 25.

4 Independent Panel on Federal Support to R&D, Innovation Canada: A Call to Action (Ottawa: Industry Canada, 2011), 5-5.

Education and Skills Indicators

See discussions on other indicators
High-school completionStudents with high-level science skills
College completionAdult literacy rate—low-level skills
University completionAdult literacy rate—high-level skills
PhD graduatesPerformance of disadvantaged schools
Percentage of graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineeringAdult participation in education
Students with low-level reading skillsEquity in learning outcomes
Students with high-level reading skillsForeign student index
Students with low-level math skillsGender gap in tertiary attainment
Students with high-level math skillsReturn on investment in tertiary education, men
Students with low-level science skillsReturn on investment in tertiary education, women