It is common knowledge that there are more doctoral students nowadays than ever before. A 2015 article citing data from Statistics Canada noted that in 2011-12 “50,772 students were enrolled in a doctoral program at a Canadian university,” and that “this number is increasing more rapidly – and is actually higher! – than the number of professors at Canadian universities, which grew from 30,399 in 2000-01 to 41,934 in 2010-11, an increase of 38 percent.”
Despite their talents, their efforts and their intelligence, many doctoral students become disillusioned. A significant number of them quit before earning their degree. One reason might be that the academic sector is saturated for those who want to pursue an academic career. In addition, it has been shown that postsecondary studies generally have an adverse effect on mental health for those who choose this path, in part because of the isolation that is typically associated with master’s and doctoral programs.
In terms of representation, the numbers are catastrophic for women, especially for racialized women like myself. We are sharply underrepresented among full professors at universities and among research chair holders. Malinda S. Smith, co-author of The Equity Myth, wrote an article titled “Diversity is indispensable to excellence: The Canada Research Chairs program” in The Conversation last August. She writes:
“unequal opportunity structures in Canada’s research ecosystem, and academia more broadly, can limit the diversity of talent cultivation, identification, nomination, selection and appointment to coveted positions. (. . .). Research has demonstrated that systemic barriers and unconscious biases can prevent some scholars, with stellar curricula vitae and demonstrated research excellence, from being nominated for prestigious research prizes and awards.”
Truth be told, I didn’t grow up assuming that I’d spend years of my life in academic studies. I’m a first-generation student from a modest background, and the first of my siblings to earn a university degree. As a teenager, I was sure that university was out of reach for me, and that I didn’t have the resources to make a place for myself there. And I certainly never would have thought that I might someday be accepted into a doctoral program.
After earning a counselling degree and pursuing internships, work and volunteer experience, I fell in love with my field and developed a thirst to learn more about it. Before I knew it, I found myself developing an interest in advancing my studies. Despite my doubts and apprehensions, I decided to go for it. I ran into various unexpected obstacles and challenges while doing my master’s, but I chose to hang in there, and I’ve never regretted that choice. Today, I am a doctoral student in social work. And it all happened quite naturally.
I am not claiming that I’m going to prove all the statistics wrong. Nevertheless, I’m committed to pursuing postgraduate studies in order to continue my intellectual development, take on a challenge and get out of my comfort zone. I’m doing it for me. I want to stay off balance, but in a positive sense. I want to successfully complete my PhD, because my research topic – sexual violence against women – is a subject that’s always been a source of deep outrage for me (and therefore also a source of motivation). My work and volunteer experiences with marginalized and disadvantaged communities has allowed me to identify a research topic that is important to me, and to society as well. I believe that I’m in good hands at my institution and within my direction of my research. As for funding, I was able to obtain a Vanier scholarship before starting my research. I was also lucky enough to work with extremely accessible, down-to-earth professors throughout my university studies. That gives me a certain amount of hope that people can choose to be researchers “for the right reasons.” Some people might say that I’m naïve or carefree. And maybe I am. But it’s impossible to know the potential consequences of every decision we make in life.
At this point, I hope to teach at the college or university level (even though that might sound like a cliché). I know what I want, but I don’t have an inflexible career plan. If life leads me to other circumstances, I won’t be sad about it. I’m open to whatever opportunities life may bring my way, even if they’re outside of academia. I’ll also be willing to abandon my doctoral work if it turns out to make me deeply unhappy someday. I feel confident in my ability to be introspective, creative and resourceful. My friends and family and the professors I’ve worked with don’t seem to be concerned for me. I ignore unsolicited advice from total strangers about my life and my decisions.
A few months ago, I had the chance to speak with Isabelle Daunais when I was the ambassador for the faculty of arts at McGill University. Dr. Daunais has an impressive background. She is an accomplished and respected researcher, but maintains a very simple and modest attitude. In her office, between walls lined with books and novels, she explained that it wasn’t her place to tell students whether they have what it takes to succeed in the academic world. At the end of our interview, she shared one piece of advice to aspiring doctoral students:
“If you feel that you’ll regret it if you don’t pursue a doctorate, then do it. Otherwise, don’t. But remember that once you have a doctorate, it’s an achievement and a body of knowledge that no one can ever take from you.”
My goal isn’t to judge or belittle people who decide to turn away from the world of academia. Leaving takes courage too. Those who decide to make this choice have decided to listen to themselves, and to their own priorities and needs. That deserves respect, especially in the performance-obsessed society we’re all a part of.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what my future holds. Maybe I’ll be one of those who give up on their doctoral degree and a career in academia. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself. But despite all of this uncertainty, I’ve made the choice to keep moving forward. Because right here, right now, I still have that fire and that passion pushing me forward. So I’ll continue my studies despite the odds and obstacles, just as I’ve always been able to do.
Kharoll-Ann Souffrant is a doctoral student in social work at the University of Ottawa and the recipient of a Vanier scholarship.