What does the future
hold for PhD students?
by Martha Crago
he kind of skills that doctoral students
will need for their careers is a topic that has
been garnering considerable attention of
late. With new data suggesting that only
20 percent of Canada’s PhD graduates will
find tenure-track jobs in academia (forthcoming
from the Conference Board of Canada), the attention seems well placed.
Let me start with my own career trajectory.
After a master’s degree, I began work running a
demonstration speech clinic and as a university
lecturer. Then, after a few years teaching English
as a second language in France, I returned to Canada and worked as a clinician and lecturer. I took
the plunge into a doctoral program, which led to
a tenure-track job. Soon I found myself managing
projects and a research lab, dealing with facilities
management, payrolls and budgets. No one had
ever taught me this. I learned with the help of
colleagues and support staff. Six years later, I
was dean of graduate studies and associate vice-provost of academic programs and had to learn
more skills, from fundraising to working on uni-versity-wide planning. Every job change (including
vice-president at two institutions) brought more
to learn about and manage.
What’s become clear to me over this very
pleasing career is that it required ongoing learning and skills acquisition. My experience is similar to that of many academics who hold administrative positions of one kind or another. Very
few of us have ever had management or administrative training.
The situation is complicated for doctoral
graduates who find careers outside academia.
As graduate students they often have limited
opportunities with non-academic employers and
networks. They’ve been mentored by professors
whose entire careers have been within a university
and who often don’t possess the skills and knowledge to prepare students for outside careers.
Sometimes professors are disappointed when their
students pursue non-academic careers, and some
students fear telling them that they don’t plan to
be an academic researcher. As well, certain U.S.
granting agencies require professors to detail the
academic careers and publications of their grad
students, used in evaluating the professors’ grant
For their part, non-academic employers are
often not clear about the kinds of skills and
knowledge that the doctoral degree provides, and
they may expect PhDs will be misfits in their
workplace. The limited amount of R&D done by
Canadian companies is another constraint, and
in contrast to many German companies, which
commonly hire people with doctoral degrees.
Moreover, people with PhDs will find themselves in many kinds of career settings: jobs in
government, not-for-profit organizations and the
private sector. So, besides the research, writing
and presentation skills they have learned during
the doctorate, they’ll need more knowledge. The
skill sets they need will vary depending on the
discipline and the eventual career.
Over the last 15 years, many Canadian uni-
versities have started to provide workshops
(e.g. Concordia University’s GradProSkills and
Ontario universities’ MyGradSkills.ca programs)
that train students in a variety of non-academic
professional skills. Universities have started hold-
ing career fairs for graduate students to expose
them to various types of employers. Mitacs
research internships and its STEP program –
together with training opportunities provided by
the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research
Council’s CREATE grants and industrial doctoral
and postdoctoral fellowships – have provided
many S TEM-discipline students with experience
in the private sector.
These are positive developments, but more
is still needed for doctoral students in the social
sciences and humanities. Paul Yachnin and Leigh
Yetter (2015) have taken a fresh look at the future
directions for the humanities’ PhD in their article
in Policy Options and with a conference and other
initiatives, partly funded by the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council. They emphasize the many useful capabilities that doctorate
holders in the humanities possess.
It is now 15 years since I was dean of graduate
and postdoctoral studies at McGill University.
At that time, during McGill’s first non-academic
career fair for graduate students, national organizations in Canada were still predicting more
tenure-track faculty positions than could be
filled by the projected numbers of doctoral graduates. Not only did those predictions not come
true, but we have moved in the opposite direction. Employment outside the university for
PhDs has become a critical issue and one that
we cannot ignore.
Martha Crago is vice-president,
research, at Dalhousie
University. Her column
appears in every second issue
of University Affairs.
“Employment for PhDs
has become a critical issue
that we cannot ignore.”
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