This past winter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told an audience in Davos, Switzerland, that he wanted Canada to be known for the resourcefulness of its people. He need look no further than the potential of a new generation of PhDs. And yet, ironically, we are repeatedly plagued with the question: does Canada produce too many PhDs? There’s a disturbing subtext to this question. It discounts two of the greatest assets our country has: our education system and our citizens. It also undermines the value of the PhD in preparing for the growing complexity of the global economy.
From my perspective, the answer to the PhD over-production question is a resounding “no.” But that doesn’t negate the pressing responsibilities of the academy to ensure that our training programs adapt and respond to the current economic landscape.
It would be more to the point to ask if we have set in place policies, practices and attitudes that maximize the potential of our graduate students as well as the receptiveness of employers to mobilize our intellectual and research capital. And if we haven’t, then why not? This is not an exclusively academic issue. It encompasses economic development, social innovation, global responsibility, bold vision and political will. Leadership on this issue can help transform the raw assets of brains, curiosity and ambition into an intellectual infrastructure essential to a 21st-century Canada.
Canada’s tentativeness is startling in comparison to our neighbours and competitors. Less than one percent of our population holds a PhD. That is low in comparison to other developed countries; and, a sizable number of our PhD holders are foreign-trained graduates who have immigrated to Canada. Indeed, according to the 2011 Conference Board of Canada Report Card, the number of Canadian PhD degrees granted lags behind all but one country in a 15-nation peer group.
The diversity and global experience that our PhD holders bring to society and our labour market should be celebrated. Given the growing complexity of global issues and an increasingly competitive knowledge-based economy, we need a robust supply of highly trained talent infiltrating all sectors and amongst our political and business leaders to drive growth. But there’s the rub. Leveraging that talent requires a strategy and assertive investment.
Intellectual infrastructure and the talent of those with strong disciplinary, technical and cultural knowledge is fundamental to research, innovation and creativity. In turn, it can drive productivity, and economic and social well-being. However, it is not the sole driver. Economic and societal prosperity and growth relies on good policy and political will.
In its latest State of the Nation report, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council found that Canada’s innovation performance has continued to decline since 2006, attributable to low investments in research, development and business enterprise (ranking 26th in the OECD). The report emphasizes the urgent need for businesses and organizations to embrace and manage innovation as a strategy for growth and competitiveness. It highlights the corresponding need to support this through government funding. Such action will drive the demand for a highly trained and educated workforce as research capacity is incorporated into the operation. PhD-trained individuals have the ability and experience to guide projects through ideation to execution to implementation of solutions. They are an obvious source of top talent and leadership.
Canadians holding PhDs have expertise in a particular field and are skilled communicators, problem solvers, critical thinkers and lifelong learners who are highly motivated, comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity and are increasingly globally connected. These are highly desirable attributes in all sectors and enable those with PhDs to succeed in a variety of work settings. Indeed it is the case that PhD graduates have well-paying and satisfying careers in multiple sectors, including the academy yet the dominant narrative of late would have us believe that they are best suited to the academy.
Statistics on labour outcomes for doctorates vary. Unfortunately, they fail to capture the complete picture. They range from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s finding that half of Ontario’s PhDs are working in a tenure-track position somewhere in the world, to the Conference Board estimate that 20 percent of PhDs end up working full-time in the professoriate. What is missing is a clear picture of the success and satisfaction experienced by Canadian graduates in non-academic employment and the benefits they bring to the workplace. It is clear, though, that in tandem with a72 percent increase in Canadian PhD degrees granted (2002 to 2012), there is continued absorption of research and creative talent into diverse careers. This should come as no surprise. The PhD process trains individuals to be adaptive and resilient, important characteristics in a rapidly changing workplace.
Programs to develop both professional and “soft” skills, such as communications and interpersonal skills, are becoming more common within graduate education, Experiential learning opportunities beyond the dissertation research, which is by its very nature experiential, are also increasing in order to provide “real world” experience by engaging external partners. The Mitacs Accelerate program is an oft-cited example from which we can learn. But the time has come to integrate those “real world” opportunities within the PhD program of study in order to mitigate prolonging degree completion times.
Whether it is addressing global or technological challenges, or working within communities, success is more likely to come from the efforts of a team with complementary skills and expertise. Corporations understand this and form teams with combined relevant expertise (e.g. cultural knowledge, engineering design and biomedical expertise) to improve outcome and implementation. Universities, and students themselves, recognize the importance of cultivating team skills. This was a main message from students at the conclusion of the “Imagining Canada’s Future” project organized last year by the Canadian Association for Graduate Students in partnership with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Also striking was the responsibility the students felt to authentically engage with colleagues, communities and the world. Yet most PhD programs have not been structured to provide opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration and shared learning. Our responsibility is to improve on that and to do so in short order.
Education is never an individual or solely an institutional endeavour. More than ever, we need to consider it a communal undertaking built on partnerships and shared values that, planned well, reap both individual and societal returns. PhD holders raise that bar in our communities, businesses, schools and seats of government by driving productivity through research, innovation and creativity. To extend these opportunities requires multi-sectoral investment, vision and attitudinal desire to support growth and development. Canada should be up to it – our PhDs certainly are.
Brenda Brouwer is president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and vice-provost and dean of graduate studies at Queen’s University.