This post is co-authored by Jennifer Polk (PhD, history) and Maren Wood (PhD, history), co-founders of Beyond the Professoriate.
There are significant challenges to collecting quality data on alumni and former students. We know this first-hand: Maren has tracked thousands of PhDs, and this work continues with our Who Lands Tenure-Track Jobs? research project. That’s why we were excited for the publication of the University of Toronto’s 10,000 PhDs Project. (Jen got her PhD in history from U of T in 2012; that makes her one of the alumni employed in the “individual sector.”)
As we read through the data on the interactive website, and the press accompanying its release, we want to take a look at what we – professionals who work with graduate students and PhDs in career transition – see when we look at these kinds of studies.
More PhDs moving beyond the professoriate
There have never been more PhDs going beyond the professoriate. One reason? More PhDs than ever are graduating from Ontario universities, without a commensurate increase in the number of faculty positions. In the humanities and many social science disciplines, the number of new openings for assistant professors keeps shrinking.
When faced with limited opportunities in higher education, graduates take jobs where they can make a living wage, find career advancement, and be part of a collegial work environment. PhDs take on new challenges both within and beyond the higher education sector after completing their degrees. These types of studies don’t prove that having a PhD credential is useful. They prove nothing about the relevance of doctoral-level education and training to careers.
With, or after, your PhD?
There’s an important distinction to make between jobs specifically for PhDs and jobs held by folks who happen to have PhDs. Take us, for example. We run a startup business; what we do day in and day out has nothing to do with our training as historians. Our past experience and knowledge of higher education has some relevance, no doubt, but we’ve had to learn a wide range of new skills: marketing and communications, customer service and support, employee management, business development and sales, the list goes on. Our PhDs did not prepare us for this work. We do it after our degrees, not because of them.
And that’s fine with us. We see no need to force a direct connection between education and career paths.
PhDs leaving academia are in career transition
Snapshot studies don’t address the process of career transition that so many PhDs experience. We hear from people who earned degrees across North America, in all disciplines, about how hard it is to move into non-faculty careers. With the exception of a handful of STEM disciplines, where time and research in the lab is directly transferable into positions in industry, PhDs struggle to match their experience and knowledge with the needs of employers.
Our most recent career panel featured three PhDs now working in the field of data science. Their stories are telling: Katherine Wilkins, PhD (computational biology), applied to over 100 jobs before landing a position as a . . . computational biologist in industry. But for Joe Frank, PhD (political science), and Nick Gaylord, PhD (linguistics), the path was less straightforward. Networking was a necessary part of their efforts to secure their positions in higher education and the tech sector, respectively.
Or consider Josh Magsam, PhD (English), our more recent presenter. He’s now part of the management team at Discogs.com, but he started his career there doing an entry-level customer service job. Networking helped him get that first job, too.
PhDs often start in entry-level positions and have to acquire industry-specific knowledge and skills before they can move into leadership positions. They don’t start there. Graduate students and their advisers should be aware that a career in a new industry can take a while to get off the ground.
The 10,000 PhDs Project report (PDF) claims that, “The specialized knowledge and skills obtained from advanced degrees can be successfully transferred to a broad range of professional contexts even within a challenging job market.” It’s true that individuals who have PhDs work in many different careers. That is not the same as saying that they have those jobs because of “knowledge and skills obtained from advanced degrees.” We don’t know what relevance PhD experience has to jobs that came after it. And we don’t know why these PhDs were hired or what skills and experiences they leverage in their positions. We only know organizations and job titles.
Smart people work everywhere and learning happens outside of classrooms and labs. When PhDs move into non-faculty careers, they have to translate their work experience in academia into core competencies employers are looking for: problem solving, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and communication skills. These skills and abilities are not unique to graduate education. Far from it.
Humanities PhDs opt out of “innovation economy”
One of the striking, if not unsurprising, findings is the small percentage of humanities PhDs who are employed in the private sector – or anywhere outside higher education.
The 10,000 PhDs Project report notes that, “Our society benefits from PhDs contributing to all its sectors, enlarging the intellectual conversation, proposing new ideas, finding innovative solutions, and proving the resourcefulness or people adept at critical and creative thinking.”
If we accept the truth of this statement, then it seems large numbers of humanities PhDs are opting out of making these contributions. Seventy-nine percent of found graduates are working in postsecondary education. If U of T grads are “fuelling a global innovation ecosystem” (from page 9 of the report) it seems clear that its humanities PhDs are playing almost no role in this at all. We wonder what humanities departments think about this.
The data is concerning in another way, too. About 17 percent of tracked humanities PhDs were in sessional/contract positions. In history, nearly a quarter of the PhDs tracked were still in sessional/contingent faculty positions. Why are PhDs in the humanities remaining in insecure employment instead of transitioning into other sectors?
Does Canada need more PhDs?
The single largest employer of PhDs from the University of Toronto is the University of Toronto, which employed (in 2016) more than 10 percent of all found graduates. Next on the list of largest employers are York University, Ryerson University, and the University Health Network – these account for several hundred more PhDs. Only 33 alumni were working at Google Inc., which is less than one third of one percentage of all graduates (although it is prominently displayed in a word cloud in the report).
A smattering of graduates worked at a wide variety of other organizations, including Intel Corporation (24), Royal Bank of Canada (23), the National Research Council of Canada (17), MaRS (9), KPMG (6), and the Mayo Clinic (5). None of these are significant employers.
It is challenging to draw conclusions about the skills and knowledge PhDs leverage in their careers beyond the professoriate: there are thousands of PhDs all doing different jobs with unique job titles: “freelance writer,” “policy analyst,” “client relationship leader,” “deputy director – quality control,” “designer and implementer of novel digital experiences.” It’s impossible to know how these PhDs ended up in these jobs, or if their PhD was necessary or useful.
Skills vs. credentials
To better understand the relationship between the PhD and careers, we need to understand the career pathways of people who leave without completing their degrees. At Beyond the Professoriate, we find that those who don’t finish doctoral degrees end up in similar non-faculty careers as those who complete the PhD. If that is true on a large scale, then this would directly challenge the implied argument that comp or having a PhD is important to the career success of alumni found in this study.
One of our past presenters, Andrew Miller, PhD (history), recently tweeted the following: “I have a PhD and work outside of academia in a job I adore. But my training did not relate to any job I had post-academia, and I could have got my entry-level position with my [history] MA.” He says, “The fact I had many transferable skills is a credit to me (not my school) for working to make them so.”
We don’t want readers to assume that doing a PhD is the most effective way to move into the many and varied careers represented in this study. How do these outcomes compare to jobs held by master’s degree graduates, or even bachelor’s degree graduates? Where are bachelor’s degree holders five to 10 – or 20 – years after earning their degrees?
The purpose and value of doctoral education
We celebrate the undertaking and release of studies such as these. They show that smart, capable people do all sorts of interesting things. Institutions should celebrate all the careers – and lives – of all their alumni and former students, whether those careers came with or after the PhD.
But we want faculty, graduate students, and administrators to be careful when they interpret this data. Individuals contemplating graduate school (or currently enrolled) need to understand what to expect after their degree and the consequences – positive and negative – of undertaking one.
- Graduate students develop important skills and core competencies that are valued by employers in a variety of fields. These skills are not unique to PhD holders: you can learn these skills in academia or you can do so while on the job in the private sector, government, and non-profit world.
- Time in graduate school doesn’t have to lead directly to a career, though it may. Students should feel free to explore career options widely, without the pressure to prove that their PhD “matters.”
- It’s not wrong to earn a PhD: education has many benefits for individuals and society at large. We don’t regret our PhDs, even though they turned out to be the end – and not the beginning – of our academic careers.
- We urge institutions, departments, and faculty members to be careful about what they tell students about graduate education and its relationship to careers beyond the professoriate. Words such as “prepare” and phrases such as “opens doors” or “opportunities available” are not necessarily accurate.
- Rather than assuming the value of the PhD to a career, let’s interrogate that assumption. What is the value of the PhD to a career beyond the professoriate? And if there isn’t a direct link, is that OK? What if a PhD is primarily an education and not career prep? What if time in academia is limited to graduate school and does not lead anywhere? Are universities OK with that outcome?
The University of Toronto plans to interview PhDs as part of phase two of this project. We look forward to this next step!