Skip to main content

The PhD is in need of revision

Too many students are dropping out of doctoral programs or taking too long to finish, prompting some universities to question what they can do to help them along.

by Rosanna Tamburri

Illustration by Lamosca.

After completing five years of study towards his PhD in English at Queen’s University, Ian Johnston dropped out. To those who have similarly slogged through a doctoral program without success, his reasons will sound all too familiar: his funding had run out; he hadn’t yet begun to write his dissertation; the isolation had become oppressive; and the prospects for landing a tenure-track faculty job in English studies – were he to forge ahead and finish – were dim.

So he left Queen’s in 2009 and enrolled in a master’s program in educational counselling at the University of Ottawa, which he completed in 2012. Now 32, Mr. Johnston is working as a freelance writer while he looks for work in the counselling field. He laments those lost years.

“I think I could have done a lot better. I could have gotten some practical skills, a career of some kind, some earnings; whereas now I’m just starting out.” He puts the blame squarely on his own shoulders – “I didn’t put enough into it,” he says – but adds thoughtfully, “It would have been nice to have had a bit more help.”

For those about to enter doctoral studies, the statistics are sobering. The completion times are long and the success rates, though improving, are dismally low in certain disciplines (see “The latest data on completion rates and times”). Yet, PhD enrolment continues to climb, more than quadrupling over the past 30 years. The increase was spurred by government policies that sought to fill a perceived labour market need for highly skilled workers and to keep pace with the United States and other industrialized countries that outrank Canada in PhD production. Since 2000, almost 200 new doctoral programs were launched in Ontario alone, according to data compiled by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Enrolment growth occurred in almost all disciplines and was strongest at mid-sized institutions.

Some are starting to question this expansion. Maybe “it’s time for a little evaluation of what happened in the recent past … and some sober reflection on what we think we have to do in the future,” suggests Harvey Weingarten, HEQCO’s president. “Why did we make this investment? Are [PhD graduates] getting jobs? Did we expand in the right places?”

These are questions some universities are also starting to ask themselves. “I don’t think we have been as careful or as thorough as we should be at looking at PhD programs,” says David Farrar, provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of British Columbia. UBC, for one, plans to review its PhD programs, examining everything from curricular requirements to completion times, graduation rates, and employment prospects for its doctoral graduates. It plans to post graduation rates and completion times, by program, on its website so prospective students can easily access the data.

In what’s bound to be a more controversial move, UBC is also considering limiting PhD enrolment in some disciplines. “In some areas there is a huge demand for our PhD students,” says Dr. Farrar. However, “I believe there are other areas where we may be producing more PhD students than we need. We need to look at where our graduates are going and then ask questions about how many PhDs we should be admitting.” It won’t be an easy conversation, he acknowledges, “because at some universities we think our mandate is to produce high-quality graduate students.” But, he adds, it’s only fair to students: “They need to know when they get into this where it’s going to take them.”

Queen’s University, as well, is taking a second look at how it runs its PhD programs. Some programs have moved their comprehensive exams to earlier in the process and tried to limit their scope so that students can move on to the research phase of their studies sooner. Last summer, Queen’s launched a week-long dissertation boot camp for students to help them write their theses. “We knew things were good when Friday rolled around and it was time to have a few refreshments, and one of the participants said, ‘I can’t stay. I finished a chapter. I’ve got to get it to my supervisor,’” says Brenda Brouwer, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies. Queen’s continues to follow up with the 26 participants to ensure that they’re still making progress. It also recently surveyed its PhD students for suggestions on additional incentives to encourage them to complete faster, but the results aren’t yet available.

It’s too soon to know whether the changes are having an impact, but Dr. Brouwer says the university’s time-to-completion rates, based on a five-year-rolling average, are “moving in the right direction.” Queen’s aims to have 80 percent of its students complete within a “reasonable time frame,” which will vary by discipline, she says.

It’s in everyone’s interest to do so. Long completion times are costly – not only for students who accumulate debt and delay their entry into the job market, but for institutions, too. Queen’s estimates that it spends twice as much on teaching and research assistantships and other forms of financial assistance to support students beyond four years of doctoral studies as it collects in tuition revenue. (In Ontario, universities receive grants from the provincial government to support PhD students for four years of study.)

Concordia University is offering completion bonuses to students who finish their degrees on time and short-term financial assistance to those who are at the thesis-writing stage but whose funding has expired. “We are trying to use a mixture of the carrot and the stick,” says Graham Carr, Concordia’s vice-president, research and graduate studies, and president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Along with offering financial incentives, Concordia plans to limit time extensions and is closely monitoring annual progress reports filed by supervisors and students.

In the U.S., Stanford University recently announced it will provide incentives to humanities departments that retool their programs to allow students to complete in five years, via extra financial assistance to students in those departments. The American Chemical Society has called for sweeping changes to graduate education in chemistry, including limiting the completion time for a PhD to less than five years.

The Modern Language Association has forcefully called for reform of humanities doctoral programs. In an address to the 2012 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Waterloo, Ontario, former MLA president Sidonie Smith said the dissertation is one of the major impediments responsible for high attrition rates and long completion times in the humanities. “We cannot afford to lose our students and the funding we have invested in them,” she said.

As president of CFHSS, Dr. Carr has echoed the call to reform the dissertation here in Canada. “The default position has always been that the dissertation should resemble a manuscript that will become a book. Is that the only appropriate vehicle?” he asks. Or are there more innovative forms that would capture the knowledge and expertise that PhD students acquire equally as well and would have more practical applications to careers outside of academia?

There’s no single reason to account for the high attrition rates and long completion times that have long plagued doctoral education. Studies have pointed to various reasons, including inadequate funding, lack of preparation among students, academic isolation and poor supervision. But choice of discipline is undoubtedly near the top. A 2006 study prepared for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (and confirmed by the most recent data from the U15 group of universities) found that students in the humanities and social sciences take about a year longer to complete their degrees and are more likely to abandon their studies than their counterparts in sciences and engineering. Equally worrisome, these students are more likely to devote several years working towards a degree before abandoning it.

Cultural norms and traditions in these disciplines play a role. Students in the social sciences and humanities more often work alone while those in the natural and health sciences collaborate on research projects with colleagues and supervisors. Research shows that students who work on teams are less likely to abandon their studies.

A publishing record also begets success, according to a study by Université de Montréal researcher Vincent Larivière, published last year in the journal Scientometrics. Dr. Larivière, an assistant professor in the university’s school of library and information science, found that of the 30,000 students who entered PhD studies in Quebec between 2000 and 2007, those who published papers were more likely to graduate.

“If you are integrated into research you’ll finish faster and you’ll finish, period,” says Dr. Larivière. Students in the medical and natural sciences are better positioned for success, he observes, since they are more likely to collaborate on research projects and publish their results.

Funding is also an issue. In a related study soon to be published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Dr. Larivière found that students who received scholarship funding from federal and provincial research councils were more likely to publish and to graduate. An interesting finding was that the amount of money they received had no impact on the amount they published.

“The big difference,” he concludes, “was not between having $20,000 or $35,000 but … between having something and having nothing. That, I think, goes against the grain of everything the federal government is doing right now, which is to create super-scholarships.” Instead of doling out large sums to a few elite students, the granting councils, he suggests, should spread the funds out.

And while the outlook for students in the social sciences and humanities is problematic, “everything is not necessarily rosy in the lab-based culture either,” argues Brent Herbert-Copley, SSHRC vice-president, research capacity. PhD candidates in the natural and health sciences may complete their studies faster, but they also are more likely to linger in postdoctoral positions, he points out. The close working relationship between students and supervisors in these disciplines is beneficial in many ways but can hinder students’ progress, since there is little incentive for supervisors to see them move on to become independent researchers.


“I am one of those people who strongly believes that students tend to take as long as their advisers want them to,” says Jay Doering, dean of graduate studies at the University of Manitoba and past president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. He speaks partly from experience, but experience of a different kind: Dr. Doering was fast-tracked from his bachelor degree into a PhD program and then completed his doctorate in four years. The main reason, he says, is because his adviser encouraged it.

However, many professors labour under the impression that it takes years and years to complete a PhD. “Part of the problem, I think, is that a large part of the academy still believes they are creating Mini-Me’s or clones,” says Dr. Doering. “The only way I see it changing is to get a buy-in from the vast majority of the academy that this is a problem.”

In a 2003 report, CAGS made a dozen recommendations for PhD reform. These included recommendations to collect and disseminate data on graduation rates and completion times, to encourage students to work in research teams and to publish more, to consider direct admission into PhD programs, and to provide more guidance to professors on supervision practices. Few of the recommendations have been put into effect.

But change is coming, albeit slowly. Frank Elgar, associate professor at McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and department of psychiatry who published a study on PhD completion while he was doctoral student at Dalhousie University, says universities are experimenting with ways to redesign programs, restructure comprehensive exams, limit coursework and other efforts to get students through faster. His 2003 report, which drew attention to lengthening completion times, was highly critical of universities for turning a blind eye to the problem.

Now a supervisor himself, Dr. Elgar says getting the right match between student and adviser is crucial. But doctoral students need to be “very driven” and to have a career plan in place at the start of their studies, he adds. Those who enrol for lack of better options or to delay entry into a poor job market are the ones who tend to languish.

For their part, graduate students are wary of speaking out about their personal experiences for fear that what they say could jeopardize their academic success. Yet a lack of funding is top of mind for many of them. Most doctoral candidates receive funding, either through their institution in the form of teaching and research assistantships and other stipends, or through scholarships from the federal tri-council agencies and other government programs. In the sciences, many also receive support through faculty research grants. But assistance is usually limited, and once it runs out students may have to find outside work, which can impede their progress.

Poor supervision is also a common and pressing issue, say students. Supervisors can take months before providing feedback on completed work. “They don’t keep up with you,” says one student who asked not to be named, noting that her own supervisor went on sabbatical for a year, during which time she received no response. Personality conflicts between students and supervisors can also derail things. Some students have complained about outright abuse and exploitation.

When the student-supervisor relationship does break down, students feel they have little recourse and are powerless to speak out. “It’s a little tricky because, in the long term, students are hoping to get reference letters, so maintaining a relationship with their supervisors is quite a sensitive topic,” says Carolyn Hibbs, the graduate students’ representative of the Canadian Federation of Students and president of the York University Graduate Students’ Association.

Melonie Fullick, a PhD candidate at York and a blogger for University Affairs, believes part of the trouble is that faculty members are required to supervise more and more students. “More often people are competing for the attention of supervisors,” she says. The pressures along with the isolation can quickly lead to mental distress.

Mr. Johnston, the former Queen’s student, says that although he had completed much of the research for his dissertation, when it came time to write it, he was completely stymied. His supervisor, though supportive, was busy and preferred to take a hands-off approach. He didn’t know where else to turn for help. Depression quickly set in. There was “a lot of disillusionment and disappointment,” he says. “I remember feeling completely isolated.” He sought counseling for his depression after his second year but he hung on mainly because he liked to teach. Once his funding ran out, he decided to move on.

While universities continue to grapple with the problem, there are two concrete things they could do to help, says Richard Wiggers, executive director, research and programs, at HEQCO: collect and publish more data on doctoral students, and be more candid with them about their prospects. Dr. Wiggers says a colleague recently received a letter from a Canadian university admitting him into a PhD program but advising that his chances of landing a tenure-track position at the end of his studies were slim. “I applaud them” for their frankness, Dr. Wiggers says.

Concordia’s Dr. Carr agrees. “If I were a graduate student today applying to a doctoral program, I would want to be able to have a conversation with the graduate program director about the normal time-to-completion of students in that program and ideally about career outcomes.” In the future, he predicts, the most successful PhD programs will be those that show a willingness to have these discussions, to experiment and to innovate.

Rosanna Tamburri is an award-winning education journalist and regular contributor to University Affairs.

The latest data on completion rates and times

The proportion of PhD students who successfully complete their degrees within nine years has risen across all disciplines, but completion times remain long and in some fields have even increased, according to new data collected by the group of 15 research-intensive Canadian universities known as the U15.


The figures are the most up-to-date on PhD graduation rates and completion times for Canada and are based on data collected from eight of the 15 institutions for which there is comparable data. None of the institutions was identified.

The percentage of students who entered PhD studies in 2001 and successfully completed within nine years averaged 70.6 percent across disciplines; this compares to 62.5 percent of students who started in 1992 and successfully completed. Among the 2001 cohort, completion rates ranged from a high of 78.3 percent in the health sciences to a low of 55.8 percent in the humanities; graduation rates averaged 75.4 percent for students in the physical sciences and engineering, and 65.1 percent for those in the social sciences.

Mean completion times also varied by discipline. Among the 2001 cohort, mean times-to-completion ranged from a low of just under 15 terms – or five years, based on three terms per year – in the physical sciences and engineering, to a high of 18.25 terms, or just over six years, in the humanities. The mean time-to-completion was 15.4 terms in the health sciences and almost 17 terms in the social sciences. Completion times rose in all disciplines except the health sciences.

Print Comments (41) Post a comment
Email Reprint Share Share

Comments on this Article

The whole journal reviewing process is croc. Friends accepting friends articles. The way these guys game the system (i.e., the three and more authors) is unbelievable. Take a close look at the names of those who gets published in the so called top journals in your field and observe closely what is going on.

I like the practitioner type journals for the judge your article on practical contributions as opposed to one that only you and the two reviewers will read.

Posted by JCVeletta, Oct 11, 2014 6:39 AM

(Original article by Mr. Johnston, the former Queen’s student) His supervisor, though supportive, was busy and preferred to take a hands-off approach. He didn’t know where else to turn for help <- This is a truely problem,indeed. However, for me, I could handle this problem somehow because my advisor sent me to other research institutes who actively do the work that I need. However, there is still another problem. Advisor who (completely doesn't care for a student's success or any obligation to help students) was upset after my return to school, scolding me for an hour because I have successfully overcome his hands-off management. We never have any scientific dicussion at all. I had to be scolded (please note I am more than 30 years old now. I am not being scolded even by my parents 30 years older than my advisor), because I have successfully carried out and developed international research projects. Advisor thinks that I had to work on his poorly defined and trivial local project under his control (in his recommendation letter, there is only a word of "control" like a horse or dog).

Secondly, there is a problem with journal reviewer as well. Because a journal assign editors and reviewers based upon affiliation of authors, they send a manuscript to wrong person close to the advisor. Consequence is that reviewer's comment (of course it is rejected) is all about innuendoes, and insulting first authors (e.g. there was no internal review) rather than scientific review. Please note that research institute hosting me (6 months ago) published the same experimental set-up to a quality of journal that I have previously mentioned to want to publish. advisor said chief-in-editor (same nationality) sent him that he rejected a paper because he felt so bad, not being scienticially or accademically done. More than anything, I don't understand why such a reviewer who doesn't know anything about the topic reviews my manuscript. I truely think that I could be an assistant professor, if a reviewer system is appropriate. I looked at the recommendtaion letter of my advisor, saying that I didn't carry out any research at home university. But it's not true, I finished 5 papers at home university (my advisor doesn't know even what I am doing at school, just ignoring doctoral students, working with not-so-good post-doctorals (although their model is significantly faulty, because it is using the incorrect assumption), but because advisor has no obligation to help doctoral students, he didn't advise a single paper, insisting that I dodn't work any research at home university in his recommendation letter.

In summery, 1) the professors with hands-off approach never think they have any obligation to help students. 2) a journal review system relies on such an advisor 3) it is not wise to trust such a recommendtion letter from advisors when hiring assistant professors. The entire process is a whole crap.

Posted by Jay, Nov 28, 2013 5:10 AM

I am reading this and wondering who is right and who wrong. do I think we are overtraining? Yes. Do I believe the phd should be shorter to completion? Split decision. Those who obtain and realize won't get a job realize faster and those who want to continue competes with more people(ultimately demeaning the value of a phd to a masters level type employment). But at least that is employment a problem facing PhDs held in the postdoc stream. I actually wish I could take those letters off my educational background. And I too believe it was a waste of time.

At the same time, having worked in two different academic environments if we limited enrolment who and where are immediate questions. Research was never meant nor ever will be a standardized training program where everyone has same basic skill set. In terms of training time... That doesn't always relate to abilities of person but resources, environment and project type. with a faster system to completion, I would be opposed to one where students are required to publish and pro for one where PIs are forced to have different projects predetermined to be likely completed in four years. also requiring more dependence on trained staff for longer termed project and more secure research jobs. Second who determines how many seats are available at which institutions? I have seen great trainers in small settings and horrible trainers and projects in big settings. yet the research environment is very different and I believe the quality of work is generally better in larger institutions but with less actual training. So how to begin to modify/restrict a program that so desperately requires it?

I hav no idea and am now too tired from 15 yrs of education to care anymore.

Good luck to those who do!

Posted by Darlene, May 19, 2013 11:44 PM

The commentator who said, "Does the university still represent a shining example of what is best in our culture" is perhaps the real the question that universities, and indeed, society as a whole must ask themselves when considering the "completion rates"of Phds. If we want to ensure that our customers are satisfied, then yes, it is important that we get those students off the production line in as timely a manner as possible perfore the product becomes obsolete. But if our objective is produce Einsteins and Madame Curies, perhaps the whole issue of a "completion" rate is irrevelant. Perhaps what is truly relevant is whether or not that person can actually think. This means that our current way of assessing productivity through counting the number of articles and grants must actually be reevaluated through a much bigger framework-- that is, has the person actually revoluationized their discipline. For example, if an article is cited, it is only cited by the academic themselves, or by people in other domains? Are they able to help politicians and leaders with the world's most difficult problems (free of charge and at a moment's notice), or do they simply wait on the sidelines until a position is formulated? In other words, are these academics really brilliant or are they just very good technicians faking it through aggressive posturing/stealing ideas/publishing their own work through self-publishers? If we really can't afford to fund certain graduate programs, perhaps we should not be funding professors from ALL disciplines who simply cannot think. We cannot afford to keep professors who are too busy running consulting businesses on the side to help bring the best and the brightest up. We also cannot afford to keep university adminstrators who don't seem to be able to think either (e.g. even through employing huge class sizes and the use of slave-labour adjunct profs, they cannot seem to turn profit. So why do we allow these administrators to keep doing it? Is this not just another sign of an academic's inability to think despite the supposed "rigors" of the programs they have been through?). My solution? Get rid of the self-interested crap in academia who are only in it for the money and find those brilliant professors who are in it for the right reasons provided they a reasonable living wage. (e.g.60000 to 100000 should be the maximum range). They are plenty of example of noble professors in the past who gave their ideas away for free and I believe it can be that way again. Once academia stops being a money game, all of that nastiness will go. Nastiness usually is a a sign of greed and dysfunction--definitely a regime under which a really smart and good person would not thrive.

Posted by marla, May 14, 2013 5:36 PM

Part Three:

In the job market all that is really need is a B.A., and an M.A. is more or less a cherry on top. A Ph.d. works against you primarily in this context, that is the reality.
In conclusion, if you want Ph.d. candidates to finish faster and have a greater number of them graduate, universities have to give Ph.d. candidates more power over the faculty, who are PAID to deal with Ph.d. candidates. Universities have to force (Faculty) to accept innovative and creative dissertations and prevent them from using Candidates as a means to bolster their own inflated sense of self and flacid careers. This can only be done by empowering Ph.d. candidates in relation to the Faculty.
The problem is not writing a dissertation or finishing a Ph.d. program, (And this goes with all my friends who have spent 7 to 10 years to finish), the problem is in the end always the faculty, who for the most part are an obstacle for Ph.d. candidates to overcome. All in all, I have an(ABD) Ph.d. from Carleton (Communication), with the added benefit of having completed a Ph.d. in Philosophy via correspondence through an american institution. I made this decision because 50 thousand dollars without the paper to show for it is difficult to accept and to live with. So I found a suitable alternative to a canadian ph.d. as 4 years of solid research and writing is difficult to throw away. Its now 2013 and I have just fully recovered, financially, from the Ph.d. experience.
I do not recommend a Ph.d. in the humanities to anyone, as for the most part your dealing with un-reasonable people in high places, where politics/image is the primary concern of faculty and university administrators.


Michel Luc Bellemare Ph.d.

Posted by Michel Luc Bellemare, Mar 6, 2013 10:14 AM

Part Two:

A second solution, since my dropping out, I have turned my supposed Ph.d. dissertation, where I couldn't find a supervisor, into 3 books which have been published. As a result of this, I should be granted a Ph.d. and/or allowed to submit a book as a viable Ph.d. dissertation and/or turn my M.A. thesis into a Ph.d. disseration, more options must be given to Candidates. And this requires that Ph.d. candidates have more power over faculty.
Personally, I found that the problem is with the faculty of the Ph.d. programs, who in my estimation, see ph.d. candidates as free intellectual laborers meant to follow orders and submit to their notions of their own intellectual vison and greatness.
The fact is on a grand scale most faculty members at any university will never make a significant intellectual contribution to the development of western knowledge, few will ever be known in their chosen disciplines or outside in their choosen field. Yes, they may write a significant number of articles, books etc... but few will ever read them and most of what they write will become obsolete outdated knowledge fairly quickly. There are very few Foucaults and Derridas outthere and certainly Canadian universities are not designed to produce them or encourage these sort of new advancements in knoweldge, especially in the humanities. Canadian universities tends look to other nations for cutting edge knowledge developments.
Subsquently, the only use a Ph.d. has, is for undergraduate teaching, that is where the meat and potatoes of any university is. First and foremost, a university wants Ph.d.'s to teach undergrads, i.e. the indoctrination of a new generation to the principles of the state, hence the humanities. That is what a Ph.d. is for the indoctrination of the new generation.

Posted by Michel Luc Bellemare, Mar 6, 2013 9:49 AM

Part One

A discussion that we should have been having years ago. I, myself, did not enjoy my Ph.d. experience or benefited much from it. I finished an M.A. in one year in the communication department at Carleton then due to my success I decided to enter its newly founded Ph.d. program, which turned out to be problematic to say the least.
I finished all my course load and my comprehensives in about 3 and half years. I did not have a problem writing my dissertation. I ran into an un-helpful faculty, where I couldn't get a supervisor. Moreover, the graduate studies administration did not assigned me a supervisor and washed its hands of it, when I approached them. So when my funding ran-out I was left only one option, to leave the program.
Since then, 2004, I have been bouncing around from job to job, always entry level stuff, competing with individuals 10 to 15 years younger, due to how long I remained in the Ph.d. program. I was able to start my own fine arts business and I make a good living as a prfessional artist, but this is far removed from what I expected entering a Ph.d. program.
One solution, to the Problem is that a Ph.d. candidate should be allowed to step out of the program and re-enter it at a later date, lets say 5 to 10 years after one has dropped out. Its not necessarily how long it takes to finish, its about the quality of the work, better a great piece of work than a mediocre (passing grade) piece of work on time....

Posted by Michel Luc Bellemare, Mar 6, 2013 9:45 AM

One way to make a huge improvement? Give credit for existing skills and experience!!! I am taking an MA now and in some courses I have enough work experience/knowledge in the topic to teach the course! I know there are lots of working professionals who don't take a grad degree because they already know the content and so they say...why bother?! Something is wrong with this picture!

Posted by Brian Bailey, Mar 1, 2013 1:23 AM

PhDs in the humanities are becoming so worthless as university professor jobs are almost non existent in Canada.

Posted by K.B., Mar 1, 2013 12:15 AM

The reason humanities PhDs take so long to complete their dissertations these days is because they want to have a job lined up before they file, and the jobs are incredibly scarce. As someone who has been on a number of hiring committees, I can say that PhDs who have been on the market working as adjuncts for years are often at the very bottom of the pile when it comes to competitiveness. Why? Not because we actively discriminate against them, but simply because the life of an adjunct is often MUCH harder than the life of a ABD student, and it affords them little if any time to research and publish. In effect, they drop further and further behind. Sure, someone could complete a PhD in 4 years - but what's the point if it only gets you unemployment, or a string of adjunct positions that have you commuting hundreds of miles a week teaching a 5/5 load and barely getting paid enough for food and rent?

Posted by andrew, Feb 28, 2013 3:19 PM

It's all about the money! Grad Prof need something to do. University's are taking on more students then jobs available on the other side.It's turn into a scam.

Posted by Bruce, Feb 25, 2013 3:12 PM

I don't think that "dumbing down" PhD requirements is the answer. Perhaps it is the already deteriorating quality standards at the undergraduate and Master's levels in many Canadian universities that is contributing to the lack of preparedness and motivation among many PhD candidates; in fact, there is an inevitable impact. Our universities are operated as businesses and this is problematic since such systems aim at keeping the consumer happy at all costs in order to maintain high enrolment and thereby to generate large amounts of tuition-based income. This results in the disintegration of academic quality standards, such as in grade inflation, tolerance of academic dishonesty, the setting of unreasonably long completion times, and excessive granting of extensions. The answer, at least in part, is to prepare students more adequately at the undergraduate and graduate levels of study, but this requires that professors not give in/contribute to the disintegration processes at work, which is something that many are unwilling to do because the do not want to risk job security. PhD programs should be demanding, and people ought to work very hard to complete them within a reasonable timeframe, (e.g., 4 years full-time); I certainly did. Students should not expect a PhD to be easy and universities ought not to make them easy simply to keep students happy. Let's eliminate the cause of the problem rather than bandage the symptoms!

Posted by Sandra, Feb 23, 2013 3:19 PM

‎"Funding is also an issue. In a related study soon to be published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Dr. Larivière found that students who received scholarship funding from federal and provincial research councils were more likely to publish and to graduate."...

You have your cause and effect backwards there. Scholarship funding is typically distributed based on scholastic merit. The same behaviors that lead to publishing and graduation lead to the funding in the first place.

Posted by gilly, Feb 22, 2013 4:52 PM

I think we also need to remember that pursuing a Ph.D. is first and foremost a personal choice. I freely chose to pursue graduate studies at the Ph.D. level, knowing full well that finding an academic position would not be easy, after the completion of my degree. I found graduate research to be much more interesting, from an intellectual standpoint, than a lot of the jobs available to those with only undergraduate degrees. It wasn't easy and this took some time, but, in the end, I did earn the desired tenure-track academic position, and everything worked out. A Ph.D. is, and should be, a minimal requirement for such an academic position, and, therefore, getting through the graduate studies period successfully is also a way of selecting the graduate students with the highest levels of dedication, perseverance, expertise, and perhaps idealism. Although one has to survive, obviously, I never went into my Ph.D. studies expecting to be wealthy, and I never thought a good job was guaranteed after the completion of my degree. Anyone who goes into the Ph.D. program thinking that is either naive or misinformed, or both. There is genuine value in Ph.D. research, and some of the people who deny that have no idea what original research means. Also, it is possible to switch from a Master degree to a Ph.D. program in Canada, at least in some departments. At the university where I completed my graduate degrees, in biology, graduate students switched from the M.Sc. to the Ph.D. all the time, and earned Ph.Ds without having to complete the M.Sc. first. And, as a final point related to a previous comment: it is true that the life of a sessional lecturer is not easy (the life of a tenured academic is not easy either), but, on the other hand, at my university, the pay for teaching a full year course is close to $20,000 and there are people who teach 4 or 5 such courses per year. This is hard work, of course, but such individuals can earn $80,000 to $100,000 per year, for essentially six months of teaching, and some of these sessional lecturers have been around for a long time, so they have priority for many of the available courses. So, not an easy life, but not necessarily a life of poverty either, at least in some cases.

Posted by RCG, Feb 13, 2013 1:10 PM

I want to respond to Stuart's comment. I think it makes sense to finish a little bit more slowly in order to become more employable. However I have known people who spent a long time in the program and can't find a job afterwards and people who finished quickly, have been very productive and were employed right after graduation . So I guess it depends on the person not the completion time to be employable....

Posted by Shuhua, Feb 13, 2013 12:37 PM

In response to Dave in MB, I do not like the idea of a "packaged" PhD, where someone bundles together articles that they have already published as a dissertation. I encountered this once, and there were gross errors in some of the analyses, and we asked the candidate to publish a retraction. This practice is very disrespectful of the examining committee and conveys that their input into the process is not really valued.

Posted by Richard, SK, Feb 13, 2013 11:36 AM

I completed my PhD (health sciences) within 4 years and I am now stuck in what's turning out to be a longterm postdoc position. If I had to do it over again I would have stayed in the PhD for a few more years. Financially I was much better off as a PhD student (with scholarship, TA positions and other work opportunities) than as a postdoc (taxed scholarship only).
From what I've seen a 9 year PhD with lots of experience is more employable than a 4 year PhD with half the experience. Do employers value short time to completion?

Posted by Stuart, Feb 13, 2013 10:46 AM

I am incredibly frustrated by the entire PhD culture in Canada - particularly in the Social Sciences and Humanities. I completed my PhD in four years back in 2011, and now have a federally funded postdoc. But I can honestly say that what made the most difference for me in terms of finishing was having a support network at home (partner) and in my community (outside of the university). The isolation is EXTREME, especially if you are a social, people-person. Is it any wonder that people in this line of work suffer from depression!?

I have been offered positions in the US and UK, and two of my colleagues have found work in the UK because they couldn't get tenure-track opportunities in Canada (they have published their brains out and were both SSHRC postdocs). The only opportunities I've found in Canada are sessional positions, which- in my humble opinion - are pure exploitation. Not only does the salary fail to reflect the amount of time and qualifications we have put into obtaining a PhD, but taking a sessional post simply makes it more challenging to publish and carry out innovative research, because one is simply overwhelmed with teaching duties (while being paid next to nothing).

I am currently in the second year of my postdoc and am at the end of my rope. I would love to stay in Canada and find a tenure-track position, but I am starting to face the reality that this is not going to happen. There have only been two postings in my area of expertise posted on AUCC since September. I hate to whine, that's not why I'm writing this post - but I am tired of this broken system and would like to prevent those entering it from making similar mistakes. Do your research - even if you love your topic, are excited to pursue it and feel confident that you'll find a job in your area - you will need to be ready to make sacrifices and you will need a strong community behind you to make sure you finish. I entered my PhD with rose-coloured glasses, and now feel depressed, frustrated and angered that I have invested the last six years of my life in a career path that doesn't actually exist.

Posted by Tatum, Feb 12, 2013 6:42 PM

Thank you for this informative article. I agree that over enrolment in graduate programs is a major problem, especially when eligible supervisors are few - the opportunity to "interview" prospective supervisors, while an excellent idea, would have little impact in a program where advisory faculty are already stretched beyond their limits. In such circumstances the temptation is to cut program requirements, and reduce expectations for the dissertation, for example. But the trend over the past twenty years has been to shrink expectations for graduate work, in my Humanities field at least, and these are the same twenty years in which these attrition rates have apparently been on the rise. I am thus not convinced that making graduate work "easier" is the best way to encourage students to complete their degrees. Further, slashing the expected page length of a doctoral thesis, for example, undermines graduates' future chances of employment, if they are competing against other candidates who have written comprehensive exams and a full-length dissertation.

I agree that universities and graduate programs should engage in meaningful, periodic reassessment of the work expected of their graduate students. I disagree, however, with the implication that the reality of scarce employment gives administrators the right to radically reimagine graduate studies, especially if that re-imagining is in the service of growth policies rather than students' potential future careers.

Posted by Cynthia Hammond, Feb 12, 2013 6:09 PM

If we accept that earning a doctorate in a given field implies new insight and knowledge in that field, then the researcher should have the option of meeting a professor for guidance along the way or of going it alone until he or she brings the research to completion. This gives the researcher the option to search for a university professor who would undertake to study and advise (or even reject) the finished doctoral work presented. I studied higher mathematics with the classroom guidance of a professor whose doctorate was in Real Analysis. I became vastly interested in combinatorial topology and here my professor decided to become ``my student.`` What is wrong with that. Maybe what is wrong is, sadly, that most persons engaged in teaching in a university forget that they are lifelong students.

PLEASE NOTE: I am suddenly finding that typing question marks and colons is presently impossible - computer rejection!

Posted by Theresa Camilleri, Feb 12, 2013 5:47 PM

Based on graph, Science and engineering PhDs appear to be doing pretty well- if anything, the success rates seem to have gone up over the last 20 years. In any other area, this would be taken as a mark of success- why do we try to put a negative spin on everything?
Maybe all we need is a cautiously optimistic worldview!

Posted by S C, Feb 12, 2013 5:45 PM

Smart people don't come to study in Canadian PhD programs, and the majority of faculty in these PhD programs are not qualified to supervise PhD level students. Many of them who are native-born Canadian moved back to Canada after getting a PhD from a mid-tier US graduate program and teaching at low-ranked undergrad institutions in the US for yrs. The right article should be written, titled, "Canadian PhD Programs are in need of closure," not in need of revision. Unlike the US, Canada doesn't have the industry to hire their own highly skilled PhDs, who are not taken seriously not only in Canada but also in the US. Many of the Canadian PhD programs are simply A JOKE. They exist only to look like what they are not--a research-intensive university. They are just wasting tax payers' money for worthless research that doesn't produce anything productive and in order to reduce/lighten their workload, they are just exploiting the cheap labor of graduate students who work as graders/research/teaching assistants for yrs and yrs in the name of PhD supervision. What a joke this is!

Posted by Christoper, Feb 12, 2013 3:00 PM

PhD's are money for Universities - the longer it takes for one to complete it, the more money the School makes. International students bring in even more money. Money is key - not enough faculty to supervise and guide students - not enough money going out of the system - but lots going in!

Posted by Stan, Feb 11, 2013 4:18 PM

Dr. Elgar us absolutely right that getting the right match between student and adviser is crucial. I'd never have finished if I hadn't finally got up the courage to request a change of supervisor. I had a fellow grad student who graduated in record time. She arrived at the university with several prospective thesis topics in mind. She interviewed prospective supervisors & chose the one she felt most comfortable with. I strongly recommend this method to future PhD students, & I recommend bailing on your supervisor & finding another one as fast as possible if you have a mismatch. I also think departments should keep better oversight over their PhD supervisors; the only person I knew who completed a PhD with my first supervisor said he did it in spite of him, yet no one ever seemed to look into his bad record or interview his students.

Posted by Maureen Hawkins, Feb 8, 2013 9:39 PM

A few thoughts:

I think the idea that the duration of the PhD program and the difficulty of comprehensive exams creates better scholars is misplaced. This is an easy substitute for incompetent supervision, especially over time as student motivation and mental health deteriorates and funding disappears.

Further, the Canadian (and US) model of courses-comps-research may in many cases actually be a form of hand-holding that does not credit student ability or OJT as much as UK or European PhDs might. Longer and harder does not necessarily correlate with better learning and skill development.

Also the idea that a PhD is supposed to be a long isolated slog is ridiculous. Even if none the department know the research topic or the social capital is so poor that people do not talk to each other, there are conferences. The more a student or candidate can attend whether presenting or not, the more they can engage with their peers and material and get very useful and often encouraging feedback.

If the system is producing burnt out and bitter graduates and not engaged and motivated scholars, something is wrong with the system.

Posted by Chris, Feb 8, 2013 12:28 PM

Thanks for the great, yet bit disappointing article!
I am doing my PhD in architecture, and would like to mention couple of points:
1.I would like to call us PhD researcher, not STUDENT! I think it makes more
2. Universities should change the approach they admit students. A PhD should be published as a position, for specific period of time, good pay ( equivalent to what a professional would get paid in an office, or a company. I think such approach is followed in Europe. A professor or school who does no have funding to support the "PhD researcher" should not admit any!
3. A PhD is not only about submitting a thesis! A PhD is a training period to become a professor in a University, or R&D person in a company. This requires different levels of experience, which is not always available! PhD researcher should teach, do research, publish, and get involved in every possible activity to get him/her ready to become a professor.
Finally, supervisors need to do their job well.
cheers everyone!

Posted by Basem M., Feb 8, 2013 10:20 AM

One thing often left out in time-to-completion debates is how quick completion impacts preparation for (and competition for) faculty positions.

In my field (sociocultural anthropology), graduates from institutions that grant degrees taking 3 - 5 years to compete are sometimes seen as under-prepared for independent research work as faculty members. This is because, at many top schools, one has tougher language, comprehensive exam, fieldwork, thesis and even publication requirements pre-degree, meaning it might take 6 - 8 or more years to do it. So in some cases, longer time to completion means a better developed scholar, both in fact and on paper.

This is similar to debates about publish-or-perish mentalities. Academic culture has shifted to this sort of time-based, high-efficiency, quick-output mode. And so there are few who do the sorts of long-term, deeply thought projects that in the past have often been the most valuable for advancing knowledge. Why publish a book today, when you can publish a few journal articles, each of which is worth more to your CV than a book? And so what we produce becomes much less comprehensive, for good or ill.

In sum, this idea that faster = better is painfully ill-conceived.

I do agree about the misguidedness of the recent shift to super-scholarships and otherwise no funding, however. In my case, now that I have enough funding to last for a few extra months, I feel much less urgency to complete (and will instead publish more, do a little more research and work on PR to set myself up better for the pre-tenure slog). Meanwhile, others in my program can't complete, because they have no money to live and have to take full-time jobs, a vicious circle that generally ends in attrition. And all of us spend 30+% of our time doing grant applications instead of writing our theses.

Posted by Dylan Gordon, Feb 7, 2013 2:40 PM

Very interesting article and filled with truths which I recognize from my own experience (Ph.D too from 1994 to 2006 and 2 insititutions).
I would like to add that many go into a Ph.D program because they love their area of study so much. They have found "it" - the thing they want to do for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, the job market is not always so accommodating. Also, in the hummanities, there is a general disinterest in connecting post-secondary education with employment, largely because there are few job prospects in many humanities fields, outside of academia.

Posted by John Aveline, Feb 7, 2013 1:11 PM

Couple of points:

(1) If the university didn't function as a business bent on profits, then this issue might have been averted. But they won't change their model.

(2) A lot of graduate students do enter for want of a better alternative. That's a slight against our generation.

(3) The culture of social sciences and humanities departments are often so political, ideological, and complicated, that you kind of have to be tough and thick-skinned, which isn't, in my opinion, a pre-requisite for a good student.

(4) Graduate committees are short-sighted. Academics are trained to be hyper-specialists and "experts" - they take on this persona. Programs and disciplines have SPECIFIC criteria. All of these factors, not as prominent in past generations, militate against the prospect of an education, rooted in exploration, creativity, and singularity. The system conspires to create technicians who "specialize" and speak to a sliver of sliver of a topic, which requires most of us to leave the bulk of our personality and interests at the door.

(5) University life is too fast, for everyone. Even the old-time academics who are still floating around will tell you that 20 years ago you had a chance to chat with colleagues. Now, you can't for want of time or because you don't speak to their sliver of a sliver of a topic.

(6) Finally, there's no incentive to finish or do a PhD, really. No jobs. No funding. The funding that you DO get, which the article here fails to make explicit, requires you to work. That's a job, not funding. Funding means you get money to think, write, and read for a dissertation, not to work on marking papers for 8 hours a day so that you might go home and use your best hours to work on your sliver of a sliver of a topic.


Posted by Phoenix, Feb 7, 2013 10:56 AM

I think the graduate rate posted here is not accurate. I have seen many humanities program with less than 10% of PhD completion rate. These programs simply need to be shut down but instead they go in the opposite direction and expand. We have to ask why this happens. This is a direct result of the continuing corporatization of academia. That is, these universities exploit the cheap labor of graduate students and misuse/steals taxpayers' money.

Posted by Chris_P, Feb 7, 2013 9:39 AM

To me this article is very informative and very timely. Reading this article made me realize some of the obstacles and barriers one can face in pursiung the PhD program. I have just been admitted to do my PhD program in Windsor, ON; and some of the issues raised in this article are worrisome and very disturbing. How do you know a good supervisor? How do you know whether your supervisor is real and supportive of your ideas? Why are the Universities are allowing more students without adequate supervision? These are very difficult questions to answer. Overall, there are many useful information stipulated in the article that will definitely assist me in making the decision to pursue my PhD program. Thank you for a well written and timely article.

Posted by Kenny, Feb 7, 2013 1:11 AM

I am looking forward to UBC's new era of transparency regarding graduate student completion rates and times. When I asked them questions about it last year, the information that I got was incomplete and confusing and I think I found a problem in their data that leads to a 6.5 month discrepancy in the average PhD length that they declined to explain when I asked.

Posted by Dan, Feb 6, 2013 9:17 PM

Sadly, most commenters here are not fully informed about what is involved in scholarly work. Transforming an incoming graduate into a capable scholar is hard work. There are tons of things to learn and understand. Creating incompetent PhDs is a senseless perversion of academia and a waste of tax dollars. We are trying to recruit capable junior faculty. It is a nighmare. Most are dull dimwits that have no clue about even spurious correlation. Shortening doctoral education while the field gets more complex and more abstract is a stupid idea. And most politicians (and many deans) don't understand that.

Posted by Martin, Feb 6, 2013 6:33 PM

Currently, I am just a recent undergraduate grad who looks forward to continue on with the PhD level in the near future.

After I read this article, I ask myself what is the true inspiration of being recognized as a PhD holder? Will I be a scientist like A. Einstein, or Philosopher King like Socrates? Will I automatically be seen as a nobleman like a Nobel Prize Winner?

In the business world, the successful people proudly announce: "Money talks, Bullsh*t talks".

In all other sciences (medical, technology, communication, agriculture...), the successful inventors proudly present the product of their many years in research which yields benefit to humanity.

I cry for some leaders in Higher Education to produce the future leaders, who hold PhD degree regardless of any field in science or in humanity. They surely are confident, patient, kind and considerate because at this ultimate level, PhD holders can be self-sufficient and the shining example of the best pillar to society for many upcoming young generations.

As parents, if we cannot shoulder for our children to feel safe, and confident in learning, we should not bear any children. Likewise, if all Deans, Supervisors cannot be truthfully speak to all mastered students,what it (the true purpose) takes to graduate from PhD program which these leaders in Higher Education create, then they should not promote the PhD program, neither limit the applicants whose talents that outweigh their lack of finance or their non-elite background.

In conclusion, the pillars in the society will be all PhD holders whose quality, trait, character and inner peace has greatly influence/impact of making or breaking the humanity, or civilization. Back2basic

Posted by Back2basic, Feb 6, 2013 4:20 PM

Good article. In addition to some of the points made, it is crucial that the PhD-level education adapt to modern times. No longer is it okay to train everyone with the sole objective of creating academics. The majority will move to other areas of the workforce and they need to be prepared for these jobs too. In addition, I feel academia needs to do a better job of helping promote the valuable soft skills many phds attain through the process. Employers need to understand that phds are far more than specialized bookworms. That change has to occur by (1)teaching the students to understand and market their soft skills, and (2) active campaigns to educate the public on the phd process and its compatibility with the working world. The latter should really be championed by universities. After all, most phd students were overachievers in the first place.

Posted by dm, Feb 6, 2013 3:10 PM

Thanks for the fine article. It's yet another piece of evidence undertlining how poorly run and irrelevant so many university programs are.

What a human tragedy that so many of these students waste precious years of their lives at taxpayers expense and faculty stand by and watch it without doing a thing about it.

What is also remarkable is their is little cohert plan to evaluate this situation and improve it. Perhaps someone should do their Doctoral thesis on it?

Posted by William, Feb 6, 2013 1:59 PM

To say that the PhD needs revision is an understatement. The reality is - a PhD has very little use anywhere, both within or outside academe.

My advice to anyone contemplating doing a PhD is to: 1) do your research (esp. the blogosphere) and find out what happens to most people with PhDs and 2) do not believe a word professors say when it comes to employability.

Posted by Dr.Doinglitte, Feb 6, 2013 12:40 PM

This article draws attention to a problem that has clearly been around for a while, and highlights osme of the key issues.

As a professor who completed his PhD in Australia, which uses the British direct-entry model for PhD study, and where there is no formal requirement for graduate courses, I am struck by the expectation (requirement?) to first complete a Masters before entering a PhD in Canada. Having examined MSc and PhD theses from Canada and Australia, and also having supervised MSc and PhD students in both countries, I would argue the quality of PhD graduates from those two countries is comparable, yet in one, PhD's are 30-35 when they're done vs. 26-30. That's a lot of lost earning years.

Some Canadian and Australian universities, at least in the physical sciences, allow students to package published papers and completed manuscripts as 'chapters' to submit in lieu of a traditional thesis. I like this model as it produces for that PhD student the 'currency' of their trade; peer reviewed papers. This model propels such students more easily into consideration for postdocs and faculty jobs ... when they're there.

But I also note in one of the comments on this article and the article itself the idea that we're producing too many PhDs in some disciplines. I agree! This is in part is because of the pressure from Tri-council, especially NSERC, to produce HQP, where PhDs have highest value in the merit criteria, and MSc and undergraduate theses a much lower value. Grant success means churning out lots of PhDs. But where are the jobs for these PhDs? No wonder some despair and drop out.

Posted by Dave, MB, Feb 6, 2013 12:04 PM

Thanks for this very useful and timely article. In addition to the valuable suggestions above, I think that The Ohio State University is onto something. I heard that they group 7-8 ABD students into learning communities that meet every week to discuss their progress, and to raise any problems. The group is mentored by a faculty member who is not the students' supervisor. I think that the structure, mini-deadlines (particularly if students are encouraged to share portions of their writing), and the supportive group environment is an excellent idea. Meeting via Skype might be an option for students living at a distance from the university.

I just defended my PhD, after 4.5 years of study. Having an ABD group would have made a big difference to me.

Posted by Barbara Harrison, Feb 6, 2013 11:40 AM

Let's face it, not everyone is a PhD material. I have seen a student spending 4 years in PhD program, only then he found the topic was not his cup of tea and switched to another supervisor to work on another topic - now 10 years later, he is no where near finish and finally dropped out - all of this at taxi payers' cost. In my opinion, if a student needs weekly meeting with the supervisor (at the supervisor's request) to stay motivated, it is a good sign that he/she is not a PhD material. You better find out within the first year before too late! Good luck.

Posted by Vivi, Feb 6, 2013 11:16 AM

Thanks for an excellent article. One of the most important points, I think, is that those who succeed and finish in a timely way tend to be the driven students, and those who languish may have all sorts of reasons for hanging around, including delaying the inevitable exit from what can be a comfortable environment. I'm also glad you raised the point about faculty supervising too many students. Not all of us are bad supervisors (I know many are), but we are overloaded, and some students need a lot of hand-holding (our catering to this won't help them when they enter into the profession). Finally, I think it's extremely unethical for universities to be increasing grad enrollments when the jobs aren't there. They do this for the funds. There are definitely too many students who shouldn't be in a grad program and this is not to say they don't have the intelligence or skill. It takes more than intelligence to be an academic. On that note, the isolation (for Humanities/ Social Sciences) is part of the life of a researcher/writer and we need to accept this or leave academia.

Posted by Diane Enns, Feb 6, 2013 10:53 AM

Post a comment

University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.