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A PhD leads to meaningful employment but seldom in jobs for which they were meant, reports find

‘If the programs don’t fit the outcomes, let's see about changing the [programs],’ says Concordia academic who oversaw latest report tracking outcomes of PhD graduates.


PhD student Anh-Khoi Trinh knows his job prospects in academia and beyond may be limited when he wraps up his thesis in a year.

“I’m a theoretical physicist and my work is purely mathematical in a way that isn’t very applicable to many fields,” says the McGill University student. “I just really want to learn. I’m willing to take the risk.”

As co-president of the non-profit, student-driven Science & Policy Exchange, Mr. Trinh knows that fewer than a quarter of PhD students land a tenure-track job at a university.

So say numerous reports from Canadian universities. Concordia University released the most recent of these, finding that 22 percent of its PhD graduates have tenure-track positions in Canada or abroad. It joined McGill, University of Toronto, University of Alberta and University of British Columbia in documenting the career prospects of their grads. Several other schools will soon publish their own reports.

The reports from these institutions have similar results to those produced by organizations such as the Council of Canadian Academies, the Conference Board of Canada and Adoc Talent Management, which produced the PhD Detectives report.

The effort to track the career outcomes of PhDs goes back to at least 2010 when U of T professor Reinhart Reithmeier, who was chair of the biochemistry department at the time, found out that only 15 percent of the PhDs produced in his department went on to tenure-track positions.

“I was actually shocked at the number. I thought it could not be true. We are a top university. We’re a great department. What we do is train the next generation of scholars,” he said. He then created the 10,000 PhDs project, which entailed researchers doing internet searches on the job outcomes of U of T grads between 2005 and 2015.

In 2013, McGill English professor Paul Yachnin co-authored a white paper that showed 50 percent of PhDs did not finish their programs and 20 to 30 percent found full-time employment as academics – thus only 10 to 15 percent achieved the goal for which the degree was designed.

“It was a real breakthrough for me,” says Dr. Yachnin of writing the report. He’d always assumed students who did not end up in academia full-time had not worked hard enough or he’d failed them as a supervisor. As a result, he launched TRaCE, a PhD tracking project at McGill, to get more data.

The Conference Board of Canada and Statistics Canada issued reports in 2015. In 2017, UBC combined surveys with internet searches to track 91 percent of grads between 2005 and 2013. The U of A followed a similar approach in 2019. Concordia used U of T’s research methods.

Read also: The 10,000 PhDs Project: a closer look at the numbers

The reports reveal that where one gets one’s degree does not matter. “They’re all within a couple of percentage points” for tenure track jobs, says Brad Nelson, associate dean of academic programs and development at Concordia’s school of graduate studies. “This was a validation for us.”

The reports show that most grads stay in higher education but in a mix of positions: full-time profs, administrative roles and part-time instructors. Business grads were most likely to land coveted tenure jobs. Women fared worse in getting tenure jobs, had lower incomes and more often worked part-time.

Put together, these reports tell the story of a degree that leads to meaningful employment but seldom in the jobs for which they were intended. Projects such as TRaCE that collect stories show those jobs are often found after much pivoting and tapping into skills obtained during extracurricular activities.

So, if the PhD no longer fills the purpose for which it was meant for, now what? For Dr. Nelson, the answer cannot be reducing grad spots. “Almost every day there’s a report of a school closing programs in the U.S.,” he says. He’s pushing for Concordia to re-evaluate its PhDs and use job outcomes to inform programs. “If the programs don’t fit the outcomes, lets see about changing them,” he says.

For starters, Dr. Nelson thinks comprehensives could be less intensive. “They don’t fulfil the role they were invented for, which was guaranteeing a homogenic knowledge base. We know there’s no canon anymore,” he says.

Read also: Four PhD grads in the humanities tell their stories

Dissertation expectations could also be lowered in many programs with more welcoming projects such as the manuscript thesis. “You sometimes need a book to get the job,” says Dr. Reithmeier. Even if Canadian schools change, PhD grads apply for jobs in other countries and could put themselves out of the running if they don’t produce a book for, say, a humanities gig.

Increasingly, schools offer professional development programs such as co-ops, mentorships and skills courses. “These things have to be integrated so they’re not simply an add-on,” says Dr. Yachnin. “We can’t say, ‘we think this is good for you, so carry this 100-pound bag too.’” Indeed, students like McGill’s Mr. Trinh look to his volunteer role with Science & Policy Exchange out of interest but also to build up his leadership, communication and advocacy skills.

But some problems with the PhD go beyond the walls of universities. Just a quarter of grads — 23 percent from Concordia and 29 percent from the U of A, for instance — go into the private sector. “Our industry capacity, it’s not great,” says Dr. Reithmeier. Universities can’t increase Canada’s investment in research and development or convince employers en masse of the value of the PhD.

Read also: We need an outcomes-based approach to doctoral education

Many supervisors still push the idea that success equals a full-time academic job. That keeps grads lingering in years of postdoctoral fellowships and part-time teaching positions. “This is where people get stuck,” says Dr. Reithmeier. However, universities rely heavily on their low-paid work – if they get jobs elsewhere, then what?

Change seems afoot for the PhD. Dr. Yachnin believes it’s possible to carve out a better graduate degree by sharing data and looking closely at what some departments and faculties are doing. “We have to listen and learn from each other.”

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  1. Newsbrowser / March 23, 2021 at 09:01

    “So, if the PhD no longer fills the purpose for which it was meant for, now what? For Dr. Nelson, the answer cannot be reducing grad spots.”

    There was no compelling reason given why ‘reducing grad spots’ is not an answer. The researcher interviewed just pivoted to another issue. Why SHOULDN’T there be less grad students, besides the obvious reason that PIs want the almost-free labour that graduate students provide?

    • Letitia Henville / March 23, 2021 at 16:33

      @Newsbrowser, there are a few different answers to your question, but one of the most compelling comes from Katina Rogers’ “Putting the Humanities PhD to Work.” She writes:

      “instituting blanket reductions in program size is likely to reinforce conservative decision-making in the admissions process, leading committees to compete over the prospective students with the greatest pedigree and most traditionally legible CV. Measures of selectivity, even if they are thought to be neutral, tend to reward students from wealthy and highly educated families. This means that if graduate programs focus on becoming more selective, the result will likely be a whiter, wealthier student body and a reduction in diversity of all kinds. This in turn will narrow the overall breadth of creativity and vision in new scholarship.”

      Rogers also scribes two other reasons “why a push to reduce the size of doctoral programs is problematic”: first, “reducing a graduate program’s size can actually perpetuate the increased use of adjuncts, because it may reduce the resources a program receives from the institution”; and, finally, “faculty careers are not the only measure of success for PhD holders.”

      All these quotations come from p. 33 of Rogers’ excellent book. While the focus of her work is the humanities, I see no reason why these points wouldn’t also apply in non-humanities disciplines.

    • Helen / March 23, 2021 at 16:48

      You have raised a very important point, Newsbrowser. We are producing very expensive, well-educated members of the workforce who may never use that very expensive education to its fullest capacity.

  2. Angele Bassole-Ouedraogo / March 24, 2021 at 13:23

    I do agree completelky to that.
    I have a PH.D in literature and no job in the academics. I have to admit that at the first time I didn’t think of an academic position advocacing for women in the social field.

    Now I regretted all the sacrifices such as separation with my family from overseas and no benefice at all today.

    PhD does not mean a job in the academic

  3. John Doe / March 24, 2021 at 13:50

    As it is the case for bachelor’s and master’s degrees, there is an over-production of PhD degrees. The remedy is not to water down the requirements for the PhD degree, it is to reduce the number produced. The same remedy needs be applied to bachelor’s and master’s degrees. There is no merit or benefit in producing people with degrees that are not needed. Misled and allured by invalid statistics, false advertisements and mis-representations, people waste time and money in acquiring these unnecessary degrees, and then spend a life time of frustration doing work that they are over- and/or ill-qualified.

    • Gavin Moodie / March 24, 2021 at 16:40

      What are the grounds for arguing that there are too many baccalaureate, masters and doctoral graduates? Higher education has far broader rationales and benefits than fitting graduates for specific jobs.

      • John Doe / March 25, 2021 at 11:44

        Tell that to the countless young engineers, economists, computer scientists, etc. with $40K debt and no job years after graduation, and no prospect for the future.

  4. Dr M. Burgett / March 25, 2021 at 12:04

    “Universities can’t convince employers en masse of the value of the PhD.”
    -Wow. This is simple statement shows that even universities don’t believe there’s value in the PhD, because they are unwilling to convince anyone else of it, or think they can’t do it. Further, the article states that universities rely heavily on paying PhD’s very low salaries. Again showing that they do not value them.
    -A message to the PhDs: you have Tremendous value. Your degree is the golden ticket: you can be paid generous salaries and be valued in your work at the same time. Change your belief system, don’t allow any academic to tell you there’s no opportunity for you outside of academia, because there are. Seek advice outside of academia.

    • John Doe / March 25, 2021 at 15:04

      Not correct. A PhD is a curse for employers and employees alike, because practically zero percent of jobs require a PhD. No company wants to hire a PhD because PhDs are highly overqualified for the positions. As a result, if they are hired they become a liability for the company and for themselves because they are always dissatisfied and frustrated. A PhD has value where it is needed, not where it is superfluous.

  5. John Montalvo / March 29, 2021 at 01:05

    When you look at the work produced by tenured PhDs, you see the prolific publishing they do. In my mind from Master’s up one should no longer be looking for a job but producing publications through further research to defend or promote realities, discoveries and realizations through valid research a postdoc might arrive at.

    Especially at the doctoral level, one should no longer be looking for a “job” but a position, and what better “position” is one in to produce this “position” ???

    I would imagine that much education should be for someone looking to start something or join something of like mind.

    The PhD is an an above line leadership entity and those who view this entity as anything less has waited their time.

    It is my hope we do not dumb down the PhD program, I’d rather we inform would be PhDs to go elsewhere if they are hoping for a “job”… The PhD is for someone looking to start something not “get” something. To begin something not receive something.

    At this point in their journey, should they be looking for a “job” they are either unaware of how far they have come or they forgot their original reasons for trekking this far….!

    • Magdalena Milosz / April 4, 2021 at 22:50

      Exactly…tenured PhDs have the job security (or “employment” security if you don’t want to use the word “job”) to publish prolifically. That’s part of their position, and they are paid handsomely for it. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between the number of such positions available to be filled and the number of new PhDs seeking work. You can’t produce work and publish when you don’t have an income. There’s a dangerous denigration of “jobs” and income in academia that brainwashes students and grads and leads them to suffer needlessly in postdocs and adjunct positions, racking up debt and mental health issues.