Reports call for improvement to PhD students' career development

April 30, 2013

PhD enrolments in Ontario have nearly doubled in the past decade, with about two-thirds of PhD students hoping to become university professors. But according to 2 new reports published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, the demand of full-time faculty positions vastly exceeds supply. Estimates are that less than one-quarter of PhD students in Canada will secure full-time, tenure-stream research and teaching positions, prompting rising angst among current and newly minted PhDs about their preparedness for life in a non-academic career. Despite the shortage of academic positions, many PhD programs, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, continue to train and mentor students for academic careers that are getting harder to secure. PhD students who pursue non-academic careers often feel at a loss post-graduation, particularly if they have had little contact outside the academic world. According to a qualitative study by researchers from McMaster, York U, and Mitacs, a majority of PhD students and graduates participating in focus groups said their graduate education had not adequately prepared them for non-academic careers. Some said they feel unable to talk openly with their supervisors about their thoughts or plans outside of academe. While universities are making efforts to provide PhD candidates with internships and other exposure to non-academic career paths, they are largely voluntary initiatives and are not part of the requirements of most PhD programs. The reports call for several improvements, including creating a central repository of all opportunities that support student professional skills development and career training, and providing students with access to information on career options and skills required. Governments are urged to consider their objectives in promoting increased PhD enrolments and monitor whether the investments are resulting in desired outcomes, while graduate programs should acknowledge that the majority of PhD graduates will not secure full-time academic positions. Students are advised to consider whether a PhD program is really suited to their personal goals, interests, and labour market aspirations. They should speak with other students and recent graduates about their experiences, inquire about professional development opportunities, and insist that their academic program provide data on labour market outcomes and career pathways of recently graduated students. HEQCO News Release | McMaster/York U/Mitacs News Release | So You Want to Earn a PhD? The Attraction, Realities and Outcomes of Pursuing a Doctorate | Beyond Labs and Libraries: Career Pathways for Graduate Students