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In my opinion

PhD graduates continue to seek tenure-track positions despite low odds, says report

Report shows uncertainty surrounding non-academic positions, in addition to the quite reasonable impression they do not provide massive remuneration, argues political scientist.


Since 2008, the number of assistant professor positions, the first permanent academic appointment for PhDs, has diminished by around 15 percent in Canada. Even as secure academic positions dwindle, the majority of PhDs continue to prefer academic employment, and pursue poorly paid temporary academic positions in their efforts to obtain tenure-track positions. Contra appearances, this is not unreasonable, because the non-academic options are no better. A comprehensive new report from the Council of Canadian Academies lays out why. The whole report is worth reading, but I summarize a few key findings below.

Canada has been running a great experiment for the last two decades. Its private sector does not employ many PhDs compared to peer countries like Australia and the U.S. In fact, Canada lagged behind these countries in producing PhDs per capita two decades ago. It was not clear whether this was a problem of supply, not enough PhDs, or a problem of demand in which Canadian employers did not want to hire PhDs.

If it was the former, there was also an output gap – the lack of PhD graduates meant a shortage of skilled labour for Canadian companies, which were either paying too much for that labour, or, put off by the high cost of skilled workers, foregoing investments in innovation. If this logic were true, boosting PhD production would enable Canadian companies to hire more skilled workers at a lower cost, thereby increasing Canadian innovation and economic growth.

To find out whether it was a problem of supply or demand, the federal and provincial governments expanded funding for graduate study. From 2002 to 2017, the number of PhDs produced in Canada went from 3,723 to 7,947. Meanwhile, the number of assistant professor positions in Canada rose from 8,646 in 2002-03 to a peak of 10,986 in 2007-08, and then diminished over the next 10 years to the 2002-03 level (there were 8,661 assistant professors in Canada in 2018-19). While there is no measure of assistant professors hired per year, I estimate there is one assistant professor position for each five or six PhDs produced in Canada. It’s important to note that some of those positions are filled by non-Canadian PhDs, hence the rate of new PhDs being hired as assistant professors in Canada is likely lower than the report’s estimate of around 20 percent of PhDs in the labour force being tenure-track faculty. However, we now have enough data points, nearly 8,000 PhDs a year, to answer the question.

The answer is that it is a problem of demand. We know this because, in the most important finding of the report, as PhD production has increased, the wage premium to PhDs over master’s degrees has diminished. In 2006, it took men with PhDs eight years to make up for lost earnings – cost of graduate study as well as the opportunity costs of foregone employment – than if they had started working after a master’s degree. In 2016, it took men with PhDs 16 years to catch up. Women catch up quicker, but at a lower level of income for both PhDs and master’s.

Read also: The mismatch continues between PhD holders and their career prospects

If the problem was one of supply, the wage premium would have not changed, because the extra PhDs would have moved into new, well-compensated jobs. Quite simply, the pool of well remunerated jobs has not expanded to the degree that the number of PhDs has.

This is where the finding that most PhDs prefer academic to non-academic employment begins to make sense. This is not, as the report states, a problem of academic culture where students are indoctrinated to the virtues of university employment and the vices of the non-academic workplace. It is instead, an acknowledgment of the greater uncertainty surrounding non-academic positions, in addition to the quite reasonable impression they do not provide massive remuneration.

Tenure-track employment is unlikely, but the process is well-known and the odds can be identified. To use a distinction associated with John Maynard Keynes, pursuing academic employment involves risk, and pursuing non-academic employment involves uncertainty. It’s like comparing two bets: one where the odds and payoffs are known, the other where the odds and the payoffs are mostly unknown, but not obviously any higher than in the first bet. If you wouldn’t take the second bet, you’re doing exactly what most PhDs do. And the increasing numbers of PhDs suggest they are making this bet despite years of dire data about academic employment. Lecturing them on the virtues of non-academic employment seems, at best, pointless, and at worst, cruel.

That PhDs prefer academic employment despite worsening odds of that employment is not unreasonable, because the alternative is worse. The private sector does not need PhDs enough to pay them for the time spent to earn their degrees. At the current rate of PhD production, many graduates will not end up with the employment of their choice, nor a well-compensated alternative. For almost a decade, PhDs have shown they are willing to bet years of their youth on the unlikely prospect of academic employment. They will not end the experiment. Over to university administration and faculty.

Arjun Chowdhury is an associate professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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  1. Martin Escolari / March 31, 2021 at 08:51

    Great article. Everything rings true. I hold a tenured position and went through the same cost/benefit analysis when job searching all those years ago. As faculty we need to give our students a realistic assessment about the academic job market before they start their PhD.

  2. Andrew Park / March 31, 2021 at 21:35

    None of this is a big surprise. For about the past decade I have advised students contemplating a PhD to think carefully about their options before making the commitment. The fact that we are simply producing too many PhDs for the Canadian market to absorb is one of the reasons I do this.

    On the other hand, it seems as though the private sector in the USA employs almost as many PhDs as the universities do ( Is the US private sector more diversified than that in Canada/ Or is it just more enlightened? I’d be interested to see a comparison.

    • Justin Pfefferle / April 5, 2021 at 10:48

      If you think the US is more enlightened than Canada…..

    • Mackenzie / April 7, 2021 at 14:14

      Being a postdoc who has applied for non-academic jobs, I think the issue has been that the Canadian private sector does not recognize the value of a PhD or how it can be of help to them. This is very much field dependent and my experience is different than those of others. My background is social sciences and I applied to a job with a major Canadian retail chain that was hiring PhDs to help them innovate to compete with their rivals who were American companies with a Canadian presence but who also had research and behavioural economics departments to help them innovate and adjust in different markets to consumer behaviour. They had done a pilot, hiring a few PhDs from the USA on a 1 year contract to help them improve one part of the business but they wanted to hire a group to be internal and work in other parts of the business. I applied and got through 3 interviews and was listed for a position, but in the end the whole idea and all the positions were cancelled when the company decided it was cheaper to hire PhDs from the USA on contract when needed, rather than having them on as full time employees. While fields like behavioural economics and the like are fairly new here, they have been established in the USA a lot longer.

  3. Maruyama Tang / April 1, 2021 at 04:45

    But most university admin and faculty do not want to end the experiment either. Departments get more funding with PhD students. Profs hope to have more labour, especially so if the labour is partly or fully paid by university/government scholarships instead of their grants. They prefer PhDs who stay longer than masters and become more familiar with the organization of their labs. Profs who are not really into mentoring also hire students because that is required for asking for bigger research grants. The real solution may be unliking the number of PhD students to university funding and research grants.

  4. Jean McK / April 7, 2021 at 09:33

    I have not read the report itself, but I think this assessment is too pessimistic. I think it is just plain wrong to think that the main purpose of a PhD programme should be to funnel graduates into another job teaching PhDs who will then teach more PhDs, ad infinitum. I have worked in industry, academia, the civil service and currently am working in an environmental institute that does research, policy and advocacy around the world. There are many opportunities available, not just tenure-track academia, that are just as stable and pay just as well, if not better. There are also opportunities that may be more precarious, but are exciting and contribute enormously to social justice, raising living standards, empowering others around the world.

    Another study summarised in UA /AU this week says that 20 to 30 percent of PhD graduates find employment as academics and another 20-30% find jobs in industry. The majority “stay in higher education in a mix of positions: full-time profs, administrative roles and part-time instructors.” So a majority of PhDs stay in higher education jobs or in industry. These studies also don’t ask what jobs people were looking for. I know a number of PhDs who went into administrative jobs doing things like research facilitation, legal work, and HE management and those were the jobs they wanted rather than a traditional teaching/research/admin type faculty position. Others I know have gone into advocacy, policy and charity roles where they have done amazing work at a high level.

    That is not to say that there aren’t those who struggle to find the job in an area that they want at the level they want or that we don’t need to think more about how to make PhD programmes better, including more mentoring and professional development. I just think that this article makes it sound like getting a PhD isn’t “worth it” if you don’t get a traditional, academic job at the end which I think is definitely wrong.

  5. Jordan / April 7, 2021 at 17:39

    Rather than “over to university administration and faculty”, I would instead say “over to the funding agencies” — at least in the sciences and engineering, it those organizations — and their incentive structures — that keep the PhD-generating machine humming.