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Is Canada producing too many PhDs? Yes, no and maybe

The real question, said panelists at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, is how to better prepare graduates for life outside academe.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | NOV 30 2011

Is Canada producing too many PhDs? It was one of the questions that panelists were asked to consider at a session on the training of scientists at the third annual Canadian Science Policy Conference held in Ottawa in mid-November.

None of the panelists ventured a straight-out “yes,” but most did acknowledge that these are troubling times for PhD graduates and postdoctoral fellows in this country. Canada lags behind many countries in the number of PhDs produced, and yet graduates and postdocs are increasingly voicing concerns about finding jobs.

The percentage of PhD graduates who get an academic position – generally their chief aim – has been falling and is now estimated to be less than 20 percent, the panelists said. PhD graduates and postdocs are told that “relevant jobs outside of academia in Canada are plentiful. Maybe. But where are they?” asked Angela Crawley, vice-chair of operations for the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars.

The number of PhD graduates in Canada increased by 13 percent from 1986 to 2006, said Olga Stachova, chief operating officer at the MITACS research network. However, during that same period, the average increase in all OECD countries was 40 percent. “So, despite the growth in Canada, we still fell from 20th to 23th spot” in the number of PhD graduates per capita, she said. Adding to the dilemma, according to Statistics Canada, one in five PhD students says they are thinking of leaving Canada after graduation.

In this context, it may make more sense to ask whether Canada is producing too few PhDs. “If we are really serious about building a knowledge economy, we can’t do that without a critical mass of workers with advanced graduate degrees, the people who will drive innovation and ideas,” said Ms. Stachova.

The real question, she said, is why aren’t PhDs getting jobs, and what can we do about it? Canada, she said, has a “lamentable record showcasing the value of these workers.”

At least part of the solution, all panelists agreed, is to change how PhD graduates are trained. For Ms. Stachova, that means incorporating more internship opportunities for students with industry. She defines industry broadly as not just private companies, but also hospitals, non-profit organizations and government agencies.

Ms. Stachova highlighted the MITACS program called Accelerate, which offers opportunities for graduate students to conduct collaborative research with an industrial partner. MITACS currently offers about 1,300 of these internships across Canada. “That’s a lot of internships. But when you look at the number of graduate students, around 40,000 to 50,000 in Canada, it’s still a very small percentage, especially compared to various other countries.”

More than two-thirds of PhD students in the Netherlands do internships during their graduate training, said Ms. Stachova. For Germany, Spain and the U.K., the respective numbers are 55 percent, 30 percent and 23 percent.

MITACS also offers a postdoctoral program called Elevate to “transition” recent PhD graduates away from the tenure track and into industrial scientific management roles. Launched in 2010, it currently offers 120 fellowships in B.C. and Ontario, with plans to expand to Atlantic Canada and the Prairies in 2012.

Rounding out the panel at the CSPC session were Alan Bernstein, founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research from 2000 to 2007; and Suzanne Fortier, current president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

In answer to the “too many PhDs?” question, Dr. Bernstein hedged, saying, “I don’t know how to predict what the needs will be in the future.” However, from a policy perspective, “I would say we’re only producing too many if there is no longer a need.” Looking at the problems facing the planet – the shaky economy, global disease, climate change – “until we fix all these problems, we need more bright young people going into science.”

For her part, Dr. Fortier turned the question around: “If you asked me, are we training too many people to become university professors, I think the answer is yes. Are we training too many highly educated people who are encouraged to be creative and to push the advancement of knowledge, I’d say definitely not.”

Dr. Bernstein said he remains optimistic that there are other valuable career options for PhDs outside academe. “If you have a PhD or are doing a postdoc, it does open many, many options for you. But you have to be open to them and you have to take the initiative to pursue them.”

Many of the jobs that will need filling in 10 years’ time don’t even exist yet, added NSERC’s Dr. Fortier. “Many of you will have to create the jobs of tomorrow,” she said. “That’s the big challenge.”

Dr. Crawley of the postdoctoral association seemed only partially assuaged by those comments. She recently won a postdoctoral investigator development award and is seeking a cross-appointment as an assistant professor. “I’m still at the state where if this doesn’t work out in academia, what the heck am I going to do? That terrifies me. I’m going to have to dig really deeply into what are these other skills that I have and take the initiative myself and figure it out. Well, I can tell you right now it takes a long time to figure out where you’re going to fit.”

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  1. Andrew Park / November 30, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    The panel seems pretty vague about the apparent mismatch between what the government and pundits say we need (more people with graduate degrees) and what the reality is out there. The reality is that professors with large stables of graduate students are clearly reproducing themselves at above replacement rates in a university system where recruitment appears to be rather stagnant. Government agencies (e.g. Environment Canada) are being gutted of skilled personnel or likewise face stagnant recruitment. Companies in Canada typically do much less research than their US counterparts, and we are always being warned that we suffer from an innovation gap.

    I could go on adding reasons why PhDs are having a hard time finding jobs. It may be,as one panellist said, we do not train our graduate students to find careers outside of academia – that would be a great start. On the other hand, we are producing graduate students faster than the market can soak them up. It’s supply and demand baby! In fact, Masters students do almost as well as PhDs in terms of earnings. Five years of trianing as a PhD buys you approximately $5000 in extra income, far less than the earnings gap between a masters graduate and someone with only a Bachelor’s degree.

    Faced with these economic realities I find it disingenuouis to say that “the opportunities are out there” or that “we don’t know what jobs will exist in ten years time”. The problem is that neither the private economy nor governments are creating enough opportunities to soak up all those skilled graduates, and I would bet that the situation will have changed little in ten years time.

  2. kiran / December 3, 2011 at 1:14 am

    If we are exceeding PhD demand of the market then why is Canada importing foreign PhDs every year, mostly as an skill immigrants and international students. The article is vague in pointing at other areas that PhDs can be employed in.

  3. Gabriela Torres / December 5, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    It seems to me that this set of questions is much more complex than the article outlines. It is not simply about training- I received great doctoral training in Canada where I learned to be a teacher and a scholar. It is not simply about the seeming preference that is given to foreign degrees in Canada- I now work as a professor in the US. It is for me fundamentally about the unsustainability of academic endeavors that are too often divorced from the political and social contexts within which they are located. What we do is under rapid transformation in the Canadian context and beyond despite our resistance. It may be that we end up better for it.

  4. K. Shah / December 6, 2011 at 12:17 am

    Having been employed with a provincial government for about two years now, what amazes me is the inability/ ignorance of organization leaders on how to maximize a human resource like myself (and other Ph.D.s). Also, while they “speak” about encouraging highly trained individuals like us to join the ranks, when you do, you find out that there is an unofficial “anti-credentialism” ethic which means you and your PhD are never an advantage.

  5. dr.doinglittle / December 6, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Is Canada producing too many PhDs? Yes, yes, and yes.

    There is a serious problem when you have only 20% chance of landing the job that you are getting the degree for. And having a PhD will not guarantee you work in other fields, despite empty claims that there are “many, many options” for other jobs. PhD graduates require further skills training or practicums after their degree to be competitive for even basic entry-level jobs that don’t require advanced degrees, which begs the question – why bother with the graduate degree in the first place?

    Of about 10 PhD candidates that have gone through my old dept in the past 7 years, only one of them got hired into a TT job and one into a job in government. The 8 others are either teaching or researching on short term contract, or they are unemployed.

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