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.
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.
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.
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.”