Is Canada producing too many PhDs? It was one of the questions that panelists were asked to consider at a session on the training of scientists at the third annual Canadian Science Policy Conference held in Ottawa in mid-November.
None of the panelists ventured a straight-out “yes,” but most did acknowledge that these are troubling times for PhD graduates and postdoctoral fellows in this country. Canada lags behind many countries in the number of PhDs produced, and yet graduates and postdocs are increasingly voicing concerns about finding jobs.
The percentage of PhD graduates who get an academic position – generally their chief aim – has been falling and is now estimated to be less than 20 percent, the panelists said. PhD graduates and postdocs are told that “relevant jobs outside of academia in Canada are plentiful. Maybe. But where are they?” asked Angela Crawley, vice-chair of operations for the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars.
The number of PhD graduates in Canada increased by 13 percent from 1986 to 2006, said Olga Stachova, chief operating officer at the MITACS research network. However, during that same period, the average increase in all OECD countries was 40 percent. “So, despite the growth in Canada, we still fell from 20th to 23th spot” in the number of PhD graduates per capita, she said. Adding to the dilemma, according to Statistics Canada, one in five PhD students says they are thinking of leaving Canada after graduation.
In this context, it may make more sense to ask whether Canada is producing too few PhDs. “If we are really serious about building a knowledge economy, we can’t do that without a critical mass of workers with advanced graduate degrees, the people who will drive innovation and ideas,” said Ms. Stachova.
The real question, she said, is why aren’t PhDs getting jobs, and what can we do about it? Canada, she said, has a “lamentable record showcasing the value of these workers.”
At least part of the solution, all panelists agreed, is to change how PhD graduates are trained. For Ms. Stachova, that means incorporating more internship opportunities for students with industry. She defines industry broadly as not just private companies, but also hospitals, non-profit organizations and government agencies.
Ms. Stachova highlighted the MITACS program called Accelerate, which offers opportunities for graduate students to conduct collaborative research with an industrial partner. MITACS currently offers about 1,300 of these internships across Canada. “That’s a lot of internships. But when you look at the number of graduate students, around 40,000 to 50,000 in Canada, it’s still a very small percentage, especially compared to various other countries.”
More than two-thirds of PhD students in the Netherlands do internships during their graduate training, said Ms. Stachova. For Germany, Spain and the U.K., the respective numbers are 55 percent, 30 percent and 23 percent.
MITACS also offers a postdoctoral program called Elevate to “transition” recent PhD graduates away from the tenure track and into industrial scientific management roles. Launched in 2010, it currently offers 120 fellowships in B.C. and Ontario, with plans to expand to Atlantic Canada and the Prairies in 2012.
Rounding out the panel at the CSPC session were Alan Bernstein, founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research from 2000 to 2007; and Suzanne Fortier, current president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.
In answer to the “too many PhDs?” question, Dr. Bernstein hedged, saying, “I don’t know how to predict what the needs will be in the future.” However, from a policy perspective, “I would say we’re only producing too many if there is no longer a need.” Looking at the problems facing the planet – the shaky economy, global disease, climate change – “until we fix all these problems, we need more bright young people going into science.”
For her part, Dr. Fortier turned the question around: “If you asked me, are we training too many people to become university professors, I think the answer is yes. Are we training too many highly educated people who are encouraged to be creative and to push the advancement of knowledge, I’d say definitely not.”
Dr. Bernstein said he remains optimistic that there are other valuable career options for PhDs outside academe. “If you have a PhD or are doing a postdoc, it does open many, many options for you. But you have to be open to them and you have to take the initiative to pursue them.”
Many of the jobs that will need filling in 10 years’ time don’t even exist yet, added NSERC’s Dr. Fortier. “Many of you will have to create the jobs of tomorrow,” she said. “That’s the big challenge.”
Dr. Crawley of the postdoctoral association seemed only partially assuaged by those comments. She recently won a postdoctoral investigator development award and is seeking a cross-appointment as an assistant professor. “I’m still at the state where if this doesn’t work out in academia, what the heck am I going to do? That terrifies me. I’m going to have to dig really deeply into what are these other skills that I have and take the initiative myself and figure it out. Well, I can tell you right now it takes a long time to figure out where you’re going to fit.”