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From PhD to Life

PhDetectives report sheds light on Canadian PhD skills

Rebecca Maymon of Adoc Talent Management explains how the PhD employment landscape is shifting.

BY JENNIFER POLK | MAY 27 2020

A few months ago, Adoc Talent Management released a report on their PhDetectives project, which includes original research on the professional competencies of PhD students and graduates across Canada, as well as the views of employers. The report’s findings provide a valuable framework for understanding PhD skills beyond specific content knowledge, disciplinary methods, or technical expertise. Download the executive summary and full report – in either English or French – on the Adoc website. Adoc is a recruitment, training, and research firm focused on doctoral degree holders and other research personnel. Here is my interview with Rebecca Maymon, PhD, the report’s primary author.

UA: Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about Adoc TM?

Dr. Maymon: My name is Rebecca Maymon and I am a research officer and recruitment consultant at Adoc Talent Management. I finished my PhD in educational psychology at McGill University in the summer of 2019 and started working with Adoc in September 2019.

Adoc was founded by two PhDs in Paris in 2008, in an attempt to break down misconceptions and build bridges of communication between PhDs and industry employers. Since then, we have grown to have offices in Montreal and Brussels as well. Adoc Talent Management specializes in recruiting PhDs and is the first consulting company of its kind in that their main mission is to study, promote, develop, and assess the skills of PhDs. To do this, we engage in three main activities: recruitment of PhDs, training of PhDs and employers, and research on PhD professional skills and career development.

UA: Why did you do this study and report?

Dr. Maymon: The PhD employment landscape is shifting and it’s important for us to keep pace with these changes. Tenure-track positions are no longer the norm. If we look at the numbers, roughly 60 percent of PhDs in Canada will find work outside of academia. This means working as a full-time professor (around 20 percent of PhDs) is an “alternative” career. We firmly believe that PhDs have a wealth of skills, attributes, and behaviours that have the potential to foster innovation and contribute to economic growth. Our focus is on identifying, honing, and communicating those competencies effectively.

Professional skills and career development can help PhDs be more prepared to enter the labour market, on whichever path they choose – academic or otherwise. Understanding what doctoral skills are and how they can be used to solve problems can help employers when hiring and working with PhDs.

As such, we sought to examine:

  • What are the skills that PhDs develop during doctoral training?
  • What are the professional experiences of PhDs and the employers who hire them?

The PhDetectives study is based on our CAREER study (2012), conducted in France. Using open text descriptions of competencies developed during the PhD, we narrowed down a pool of 121 competencies likely to be found in PhDs. To explore these competencies in the Canadian context, we surveyed over 1,200 respondents (1,084 PhDs and 155 employers) in Canada on this pool of PhD competencies, PhD employment outcomes, and employer profiles of organizations that hire PhDs.

UA: What are your main findings?

  • Using our competency framework, we identified a pool of competencies likely to be found in PhDs in Canada. This PhD competency pool includes 38 “core” competencies that can be found in PhDs irrespective of their profile, as well as complimentary competencies that are specific to aspects of a PhD’s profile (e.g., discipline, seniority, mode of financing the doctorate).
  • In analyzing this pool of competencies from the perspectives of PhDs and employers together, we have uncovered points of convergence and divergence in the needs and expectations of employers and the competencies reportedly developed by PhDs.
  • An examination of the profiles of PhD holders and the organizations that employ them have highlighted several areas of opportunity for future PhD employment, including positions in various sectors, in public and private institutions, as well as in roles focused on research and development (R&D) and outside of R&D.

UA: What did you and the other researchers find most interesting? 

Dr. Maymon: For me, one of the most interesting (and perhaps comforting) findings was that career stabilization occurs between 4 and 6 years, meaning that we begin to see a shift from short-term contracts to permanent positions for PhDs in the 4-6 years following their defense. It was not surprising to see more contract positions early on, especially in consideration of postdocs; however, it was interesting to see a noticeable shift to permanent employment after 6 years (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. PhD holders’ employment by professional situation and number of years since dissertation defense.

Additionally, despite the fact that the employers we surveyed primarily hire PhDs for their technical and scientific skills, they feel that PhDs should talk more about their other skills during interviews (Figure 2). As technologies and occupations change rapidly, employers are increasingly looking for individuals with strong learning abilities, intellectual curiosity, and adaptability. These skills are highly developed during a doctoral project.

Figure 2. Proportion of competency categories as a function of question posed to PhDs and employers.

UA: What do you think are the most significant findings for current graduate students, recent graduates and postdocs, and prospective PhD students?

Dr. Maymon: The labour market information is very valuable for each of these groups. Understanding the reality of the labour market, what types of jobs are even an option for example, is a very crucial part of career planning (in addition to understanding our motivations and identifying our skills).

Additionally, our analysis of the alignment between competencies that PhDs report to have and those searched for by employers can be quite valuable in targeting competencies for development as well as for preparing job applications and interviews.

UA: What are your next steps?

Dr. Maymon: Great question. We do have a number of projects in the works, including:

  • An interactive tool that links PhD competencies with work activities and the different types of jobs available to PhDs
  • A translation guide for our competency pool for use between PhDs and employers
  • Qualitative data from the PhDetectives study
  • More quantitative data on the competencies PhDs use in their current positions, their job satisfaction, and motivations for entering or leaving their current position

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ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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