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Singing the same song: Breaking down HEQCO’s latest report on PhD careers

By MELONIE FULLICK | May 19, 2016

Recently the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario released the results of a study that was designed to track down the employment outcomes of a single cohort of Ontario PhD graduates. I was interested to read this one because back in January, early coverage of this study was already positioning its results as a sort of positive “answer” to a narrative about the lack of (academic) career prospects for PhDs and the low proportion of them who end up in tenure-stream faculty positions; in a later Globe and Mail article, the report’s author Linda Jonker stated that “We hear that they can’t find jobs*, but this sheds light on where they are working.” Although the first media articles showed up months ago, because the report itself wasn’t published until April, we didn’t get to read about the details until then.

So, does this new research provide a riposte to the job market concerns, and to the broader debate about the proportion of PhDs who find long-term jobs as faculty? Or is it more of an unintentional affirmation of the reality that we should be helping PhDs prepare for non-academic careers? I’ve shared a few thoughts below; feel free to take them with a grain of salt, as always.

Firstly, it seems strange that the study’s methodology wasn’t described in any detail in the report. There were about three paragraphs dedicated to it, and then a jump right to discussing the results. I’m not saying there was an inherent problem with the approach, and I know there was much more to the methodology than what’s described, because I received information about it from the author after I made a comment on Twitter. I just don’t understand why it isn’t included in the paper. If you’re going to make claims about providing new and important information, as a researcher I want to know how you got there.

Secondly, there is a problem with the framing of the report. It reiterates the assumption that to work in academia (and especially on the tenure-track) is the highest form of “success” for PhDs, then it draws conclusions underpinned by this premise. This shows up all the way through, and while I “get” that it’s reflecting what many people want to hear, it doesn’t seem very realistic given the number of PhDs grads and the way university hiring practices have been since…the 1970s. Even if 50 percent of PhDs were in tenure-track positions, that’s not a majority; as it is, the results could just as well have had the headline “71 percent of PhDs don’t work as profs”.

The graphs from pages 14 through 19 illustrate the problem: overall PhD outcomes are described entirely in relation to academic jobs, as “university professor”, “other academia”, “outside academia”, and “no information”. The overall presentation of results shows the same priorities — pages 19–24 are focussed on analysis of PhDs working in the postsecondary sector, either as tenure-stream faculty or in other roles. Only the final 2.5 pages of the analysis section are dedicated to “non-academic” career outcomes. It seems as if the preoccupation with uncovering where “professor graduates” come from and where they end up, plays down the importance of other career paths.

All this serves to support the idea that the PhD should be for academia and that other work is not of interest, even though a large proportion of doctoral grads are not becoming tenure-stream faculty, either by choice or due to the difficult job market. But the only way this shows an “improvement” on (for example) the Conference Board’s results, is if you care more about PhDs being on the tenure track than anywhere else; and even then, I’m not sure a 29 percent “success” rate is anything to write home about.

What matters at this stage, when PhDs have already been heading to non-academic positions for decades and when the majority won’t become profs, is a change in the orientation of departments in terms of what is treated as successful; a change to the cultures and everyday practices, including supervision and professionalisation. As I’ve argued, probably ad nauseum, adding a few skills workshops and/or a yearly panel on non-academic careers isn’t going to solve that problem. That “additive” model — wherein considering anything other than academic work is seen as adding frills or “extras” to existing practices — is one that’s easy to adopt but not genuinely helpful for students. But if the discussion isn’t happening explicitly (and supportively) all the way through the doctoral process, then students are going to have a harder time switching tracks later on.

Because of its focus on proving something that turns out not to be hugely convincing, HEQCO’s report misses the opportunity to provide the kind of analysis it’s claiming to have done, i.e. a more detailed look at where a single cohort of provincial PhDs actually end up working. Instead what we see is a study that takes a great deal of trouble to divide PhDs into “those in academia” and “the rest”, building on the presumption that the tenure track is the best possible result.

There are real implications for the way this research is framed. Included in it, and reported in the Globe and Mail, is the argument that since only a few universities produce the most “successful” doctoral grads (i.e. those who go on to faculty jobs) then only those universities should be able to benefit from increased funding and enrolment growth. That’s a familiar argument since at least the 1960s, alongside (and complementing) the piece about university differentiation, which is another decades-long lobbying effort that’s been presented as a new approach. So if we’re defining preferred outcomes in this way, that means making the argument that some universities shouldn’t be able to “produce” as many, or any, PhDs.

By the end of the report it seems the goal is more to claim as a “success” the agenda put forward in the 2005 Rae Report (PDF), than to explore the complexity of PhDs’ career outcomes. Rae’s proposal to increase graduate enrolments came partly from the prediction that Ontario would have “a record need for new hires […] as the baby boom generation of faculty reaches retirement age” (where have we heard that one before?). One of many problems with that argument is that it also assumed universities would hire new faculty onto the tenure track. Another issue is that the forecasted “wave of retirements” has, over the past ten years, failed to materialize.

Graduate education is also framed by Rae as a way to close the “productivity gap” (in comparison to U.S. states). But this report doesn’t go very far in unpacking the contributions being made by those in areas “other than academia”. Aside from that lack of detail, I still get wary when the human capital argument comes up as a justification for doctoral expansion, because it’s a logic that doesn’t work for everyone’s benefit; that’s why we need to remember from what perspective the calls for “more PhDs” are being made. In response to the post I wrote on CAGS’ call for increased enrolments, Alex Usher pointed out that the more PhDs enter the job market, the less employers have to pay them; this works out well for businesses and governments, but not for individuals who have obtained a PhD with the expectation that it will increase their salary prospects. The argument for “more education = higher salary” doesn’t work out if you saturate the job market. The doctorate has relative value — it’s a positional good — like the bachelor’s degree. So while there are inherent benefits to getting more education, those don’t necessarily translate into material benefits (i.e. higher salaries, better career prospects) for doctoral grads.

In general and not just in this report, the discussion about PhDs’ career preferences and prospects seems post-hoc — or rather, it isn’t about the process, it’s only about inputs and eventual outcomes. As long as those make sense, we can assume the rest is taking care of itself. Therefore, the policy of increasing graduate enrollments is deemed “successful”, never mind what students are being encouraged to do with their degrees, which is in many cases primarily academic.

To return to the idea that only research-intensive universities should be able to expand doctoral education, I think this report’s conclusion raises another question: if the government is supposedly achieving its intended goals by increasing the numbers of PhDs, why would they want further growth to be focused on producing more university faculty (and restricted to a few institutions), as is suggested? Is this a way of arguing “enough’s enough” in terms of the 71 percent of grads who didn’t end up with tenure-stream academic jobs? I.e., that we have enough “human capital” in stock, so it’s time to rein in (or at least target) PhD enrolments?*

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad there’s more attention being paid to PhD outcomes (a lot more than five years ago, unless I’m imagining things). I’m happy that critical questions are being raised, given the agenda put forth for increased enrolments. But I don’t think this report goes far enough towards filling the gap regarding our knowledge of doctoral outcomes, which is disappointing because there was a lot of potential to explore the non-academic careers in more detail.

On a related note, on May 31st I’ll be participating in an event at Congress in Calgary where I’ll be responding to a talk about the TRaCE project, another recent study designed to discover the career paths of PhDs (in this case, in the humanities only). So if you’re at the conference and that is of interest, perhaps I’ll see some of you there!

*Actually what I and many others have been arguing is that PhDs can’t seem to find academic jobs. They’re certainly finding jobs elsewhere, as other research has shown — just not as tenure-stream profs.

**It’s important to keep in mind that enrolments don’t translate directly into numbers of graduates, given the attrition rate.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. John Robertson / May 20, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    For me, an important question is how many PhDs end up in careers where the extra skills and knowledge they earned through a doctoral program were beneficial.

    If some large portion of PhD graduates end up in non-academic careers but they’re using at least some aspects of their grad school work and education, then that’s a win for me. But if nearly half are not getting a benefit from their education and would answer a survey saying they wished they had stopped at the master’s or bachelor’s level, then even if they’re finding meaningful work of some kind, I would take that as a signal that we need to make changes. Either to how PhD programs are run, or to decrease the number of entrants.

    There’s a huge opportunity cost to doing a PhD, and if it’s only providing a marginal benefit to their work and employability (and life satisfaction and happiness), then we shouldn’t be pushing to expand the numbers. If it is of value in a wide range of fields then maybe we should push for more enrolment, alongside changes to the programs as you suggest.

    I’d love to see these surveys include questions of not only which careers graduates end up in, but also whether they thought their PhD was worth it, and whether they’d recommend new students do one, knowing what they know now.

  2. Vincent / May 22, 2016 at 10:55 am

    I was actually surprised to see the 29 percent “success rate” of tenure track professor posts. However, about 45 percent of the “successes” include jobs in the US and other foreign countries. So the within Canada “success rate” is about 15 percent, which means that 85 percent of Ontario graduates are not employed in tenure track positions within Canada, which is probably for the majority, at least at the outset, their primary goal. Given that the vast majority of “top university” jobs were in Canada, the US and foreign jobs may actually be at smaller institutions.
    I agree with the previous comment regarding the relevance of the PhD training. There is very little indication in the report whether the PhD training was of any benefit (or even related to) to non-academic careers. The word underemployment is not even breathed.

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