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Where Are Canada’s PhDs Employed?

Jan 06, 2015
Daniel Munro
Principal Research Associate
The Conference Board of Canada

Each year, Canadian universities award doctoral degrees to thousands of individuals who have mastered a field of knowledge and developed advanced research skills. By 2011, Canadian institutions were graduating more than 6,000 new doctorates annually, while many more Canadians were earning PhDs at institutions abroad, and thousands more PhDs were being recruited through immigration.1 Roughly half of all PhDs in Canada are held by immigrants. With 208,480 people holding PhDs—including 161,805 held by those aged 25 to 64—Canada has nearly 50 per cent more people with doctorates today than was the case in 2001.2

While the number of PhDs has increased dramatically, questions are being asked about whether the economy and society can support and benefit from them all. Doctorates have low unemployment (4.1 per cent)—below the rate for all Canadians (6.2 per cent)—and a high labour force participation rate (89.3 per cent)—higher than that of all Canadians (80.3 per cent).3 But few are employed as university professors—the standard career goal of most doctoral students. In fact, only 18.6 per cent of PhDs are employed as full-time university professors, and fewer still hold tenured or tenure-track positions.4 Where are the other 80 to 90 per cent of Canada’s PhDs employed?

Inside and Outside the Academy

As the chart shows, nearly 40 per cent of Canada’s PhDs are employed in the post-secondary education (PSE) sector in some capacity—as full- or part-time university professors, research and teaching assistants, full- or part-time college instructors, or postdoctoral scholars. But many of these positions are temporary or transitional. For example, postdoctoral positions are by nature temporary, lasting between one and five years before a scholar moves on to a more permanent position inside or outside the academy.5

More than three-fifths of PhDs are employed in diverse careers outside the academy—in industry, government, and non-government organizations—drawing on their skills as researchers and critical thinkers to improve policy, organizational performance, innovation, and economic and social well-being. Seventeen per cent hold positions in the natural and applied sciences; 11 per cent in health-related occupations; and another 11 per cent in law, social, community, and government services and education other than PSE. Many are employed as managers across the economy (9.5 per cent) or in other business, finance, and administrative occupations (5.3 per cent). And some work in art, culture, recreation, and sport (2.3 per cent), sales and service (2.6 per cent), and other occupations (1.4 per cent).6 Indeed, employment in diverse, non-academic careers is the norm, not the exception, for PhDs in Canada.

Preparation for Diverse Careers

Highly educated researchers, with advanced knowledge and a range of technical, critical, creative, and other skills, play vital roles in Canada’s economy and society. But there are concerns that Canadian PhD programs are not doing enough to prepare graduates for the non-academic careers that most of them will have. Many students and employers hold that graduates have inadequate professional skills—including skills to identify and land jobs, and to perform effectively in diverse careers. At the same time, many employers underestimate the skills that PhDs already have and the contributions they can make. Together, these perceptions limit employer demand for doctorates and contribute to the difficult transitions PhDs experience as they pursue diverse careers beyond the academy.

If Canada is to achieve maximum benefits from the knowledge and skills of doctoral graduates, a better understanding and awareness of the value they bring will be needed. Additionally, more will be needed to prepare doctoral students and graduates to learn about, find, and succeed in careers outside the academy.

The Conference Board’s Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education is conducting research on the career and employment outcomes of PhDs; the contributions they make to health and economic, social, cultural, and artistic well-being; and what can be done to ease their transition into diverse careers. Watch for future commentaries and a full report in 2015. Or, get involved—if you lead a university initiative that helps develop doctoral students’ professional skills, the Conference Board would like to speak with you. Contact Diana MacKay (Executive Director, Centre for Skills and PSE) at for details.

1    Statistics Canada, CANSIM 477-0020.

2    Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey, Catalogue no. 99-012-X2011035.

3    Ibid.

4    Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey, Catalogue no. 99-012-X2011035, and custom tabulations.

5    J. Mitchell, V. Walker, R. Annan, T. Corkery, N. Goel, L. Harvey, D. Kent, J. Peters, S. Vilches, The 2013 Canadian Postdoc Survey: Painting a Picture of Canadian Postdoctoral Scholars (Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and Mitacs, 2013), v.

6    Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey, Catalogue no. 99-012-X2011035, and custom tabulations.

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