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Filling in the gaps? Questions about goals and outcomes of PhD education

By MELONIE FULLICK | November 21, 2012
Melonie Fullick

Recently I presented on PhD education at HEQCO’s Learning to Earning conference in Toronto. In my contribution to the panel, I focused on disconnects or “mismatches” in PhD education and how these highlight issues that need to be resolved if doctoral programs are to be improved. The other contributors were Andrew Potter (Managing Editor of the Ottawa Citizen), who spoke about his past experience as a PhD candidate in Philosophy, and Marilyn Rose, former Dean of Graduate Studies at Brock University. Dr. Rose presented research on the professional development options available for graduate students at Canadian universities.

One of the things I discussed in my contribution was the strange disjuncture in government rhetoric and policy, when contrasted with how education happens in PhD programs. Too often, when explaining why PhD numbers (for example) should be boosted, the government’s answer is that Canada simply has a lower proportion of PhD graduates than other OECD nations, therefore, the proportion should be increased. The underlying assumption is that increasing numbers of PhD grads will translate into benefits for the economy. Where does this assumption come from? Perhaps it’s just the inevitable outcome of focusing on numbers, without sufficiently investigating process.

This reflects deep differences of opinion about the purpose of graduate education. While governments want more HQP (“highly qualified personnel”), that isn’t the same thing as “more professors”. Technically the term just describes those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher credential; often it’s used to refer to those with graduate-level training, as on the various Tri-Council websites where the term appears.

Is the government’s approach shared by universities–by graduate programs, and by the faculty providing graduate supervision? If not, do these differences in opinion translate into practice in doctoral programs? What does that look like? I think to answer that question, we need to look at the details of doctoral education, paying attention to how PhD students are “socialized” in particular ways (often solely to become academic professionals, and to seek tenure-track positions). This is why the question of whether it’s “worth it” to do a PhD is so frequently wrapped up with the discussion about dwindling numbers of tenure-track positions. It’s assumed that if there are no faculty jobs, then clearly we have an over-supply of PhDs.

Between students’ needs and desires and the academic logic, and the government’s assumptions about economics and HQP, something’s getting lost in translation. Who and what is supposed to make this translation actually happen for PhD students? Should it be faculty supervisors? Non-academic mentors? University career centres? Organizations like MITACS? Academic mentoring is still a part of many supervisory relationships, and academic development activities and services are usually available on campus. But whose responsibility is it if a student doesn’t know exactly how competitive the academic job market is at the moment, and thus doesn’t realize the level of accomplishment required to be able to “compete”? Or if students simply don’t know what their options are? The current culture in many graduate programs promotes an ideal of success that is relatively limited. We need to look at how that affects students’ choices and the kind of professional and social support they receive from peers and mentors.

What can we do to ensure that students have adequate support to develop academic careers, but also to work in other areas if they choose? In other words, how can we make sure PhD students really know what they’re in for, and can plan accordingly? That isn’t going to happen if we focus primarily on the numbers telling us how many PhD graduates we have in comparison to other countries, or if we continue to assume that more education must lead to economic innovation–without asking “how?”

It’s much more likely to happen when policy is informed by the kind of research that tells us what actually happens in the doctoral process. That’s going to mean finding out more than whether grad students are “satisfied” according to a tightly constructed survey, as the CGPSS does. It’s going to mean going beyond numbers when even quantitative research on education is being cut. We need the stories behind the numbers; we need to show how different aspects of a situation come together and influence outcomes, how various factors involved actually play a part (e.g., why students’ experiences are so different between and even within programs and institutions). Good policy can’t be created in a vacuum, so why do we keep wasting our time trying?

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. JC / April 16, 2013 at 9:40 am

    The solution is quite simple. It is time for Canadian universities to cut back on the number of PhDs. The designation is currently watered down and diluted. You have universities graduating PhDs in 3 years. How is that even possible? Some graduates are allowed to use existing data, which questions the originality of the research. Yes, we have far too many PhDs and one can only hope that department heads take stock of this issue and address it immediately.

  2. Jim / April 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    The US has had a PhD glut for decades. They were talking about this stuff back in the 70s. Gary North has quite a few essays out on this in the context of economics, for example.

    Students have to be aware of this dynamic. It is nothing new. If they choose to go into graduate programs in the slim hopes of landing an academic job, so be it. The main issues I have are with taxpayers bearing the costs, and universities luring students in with misleading data on employment prospects. (The latter being far more acute in law school than grad school).

    Some people study subjects for other reasons, and that is fine. Universities are not job preparation centres. Students have to distinguish their academic training from the skills that they need to survive in the workplace (e.g., communication, time management, etc). Those are best picked up through work experience. By the time you hit a PhD program, you should have SOME real world work experience. If not, I have little sympathy.

    And yes, STEM fields are better off. The rates of postdoc’ing are growing in a lot of those fields, so the academic job scene is not getting any better due to supply and demand imbalances. However, it is easy to find a job in industry with certain STEM grad degrees.

  3. Rodney A. Clifton / December 4, 2012 at 11:51 am

    For the first time in our history, there are now more Ph.D. students in Canadian universities than there are faculty members. In fact, the number of Ph.D. students is expanding faster than the number of Master’s students, which is expanding faster than the number of Bachelor’s students. Perhaps someone needs to take a careful look at the incentives universities have in place to enroll more and more graduate students who are probably subsidized by the funds brought in by the undergraduates.

  4. Sean Peel / November 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    The studies on graduate students in science and engineering indicate that less than 1 in 5 find a faculty position (US data, but I am sure it applies to Canada also) – it IS a problem in the STEM fields as well.
    I believe Universities do graduate students a great diservice when we do not consider that many/most will end up in carriers outside of academia, and so provide them with opportunities to prepare for that possibility.
    As someone who works in industry I can suggest numerous courses that would have better prepared me for that career path (project management, regulatory, good manufacturing practices, business fundamentals …)

  5. PhD Candidate / November 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    OK. Fine. But if you have the research skills to even think about doing a PhD it’s not a far leap to figure out what the job possibilities are.

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