This weekend I was working on an essay about graduate education and decided to look up a few key statistics to add to my argument, hoping I could strengthen my point using numbers as well as words.
Little did I know what I was in for. While I’ve searched for statistics many times (not always with success), I thought I’d be able to find what I was looking for this time around. But the numbers I wanted turned out to be frustratingly elusive. I was looking for three things: the attrition rate (on average) from Canadian PhD programs; the proportion of PhD graduates who land tenure-track jobs (either immediately or within, say, five years); and the proportion of Canadian university teaching staff who have non-permanent (contract) and/or part-time positions.
While those numbers probably won’t tell a happy story, I was surprised to have so much trouble finding them. I didn’t even make it to the attrition statistic yet, because the other two took up so much time; from what I observed, attrition is not a focus in spite of the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) pointing out that higher enrollment has not translated into increased numbers of PhD graduates. That’s one example of how the main focus seems to be on enrollment and graduation — what went “right” — as opposed to attrition, which is considered “failure.”
The second example, that of PhDs who find tenure-track work, should have been a cinch given the heightened concern with this issue among graduate students and faculty. I had trouble believing that no-one had produced a study about this, but sure enough, there was nothing straightforward available. How this crucial research could be missing in action is something of a mystery (this was the closest thing I found so far).
Lastly, the proportion of non-tenured faculty is an important number to track in a context where academic hiring trends have been shifting for some time, and these directly affect PhD students and graduates. After a frustrating search through graduate survey results and through research reports produced by a number of different organizations, I finally turned up one Statistics Canada article that compared employment in the teaching profession between 1999 and 2005, based on data from the Labour Force Survey. There seemed to be nothing that was more recent and comprehensive, and almost all the numbers I found relating to academic hiring were focused on full-time faculty (or on one institution only).
During this process I noticed that the graduate student surveys seemed to provide a very thin snapshot — rather a grainy black-and-white photocopy — of results. Asking whether students are “satisfied” with their PhD program experiences (as the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey does) seems like a rather limited way of discovering what’s going on in graduate education, considering the issues involved. The SED seems to have ended with a data set from 2007-2008; its results have been used alongside the Canadian Graduates Survey (CGS) to produce a picture of PhD career outcomes, but once again this is a surprisingly foggy image. Graduates planning to work in the “education services industry” are classified into one large group — no mention of full time, part time, university or college, permanent or contract.
This is not to say that I wouldn’t like access to qualitative research on these issues, too. I think well-designed surveys produce information that is a good start, but we also need to develop qualitative investigations to find the stories behind those numbers. For example, the SED shows up the trend that mainly young, single men in the life sciences and other STEM areas tend to be those who leave Canada after the PhD for further training and job opportunities in other countries. This tells us about the effects of gender, life circumstances, and area of research on the career paths of PhD graduates. Also worth noting is the significant amount of attention given (in the survey results) to migration of PhD graduates; this relates to the concern for building national “human capital.”
It’s disturbing to me that even given the expansion PhD enrollments, and the emphasis placed on graduate education and its role in the economy, so little information seems to be available about what is happening to PhD students and graduates. There’s also a larger point to my complaint about having a hard time finding these numbers. Statistics are a political issue. Though they can be superficial, they’re still better than nothing and they can highlight important trends. This is why it’s disturbing that the current Canadian government does not seem to place much faith in research (funding has been cut from other important surveys as well). I think we have to ask, if this is happening in education research, where else is it happening?