End the PhD bashing to end the PhD problem

This op-ed was originally published on August 23, 2019, by Policy Options, and is republished here.

We read with great interest Dr. Daniel Roy Torunczyk Schein’s Policy Options article “The PhD Employment Crisis Is Systemic.” We were moved by his personal story; it is always troubling to read about the hardship a person has to go through in the hope of having an academic career, only to see these attempts fail. While we cannot deny the distress that some PhDs in Canada experience when seeking employment, we find aspects of Schein’s argument to be misleading. From our perspective as recruiters who specialize in connecting PhDs to employers, we see a different and more fulfilling future for these highly skilled graduates.

What PhD employment crisis?

Conversations about the Canadian job market’s capacity to provide relevant employment outcomes for PhDs have been going on for a few decades in Canada. As mentioned by Schein, the Conference Board of Canada suggests that 2 percent of positions in Canada require doctoral training. This may seem like a low figure, but when set alongside the fact that the country’s 208,480 PhD holders represent just over 1 percent of Canada’s labour force of 20.1 million, it is not. In this context, it is no surprise that PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate in the country compared with other degree holders. Besides, Canadian PhDs earn more than other degree holders and report high levels of job satisfaction.

Make no mistake: most PhDs are not tenured university professors. Indeed, fewer than 20 percent of PhDs work as full-time professors, while the rest are employed in industry or government or are self-employed. Although 60 to 70 percent of those who enrol in PhD programs hope to land a tenure-track position, occupying a nonacademic position is the norm, not the exception. And with an increasing gap between the numbers of tenure-track positions and PhD graduates, this is not a trend that is likely to subside any time soon.

While it is true that some individuals experience difficult transitions outside of academia, we argue this is not for lack of having developed the necessary skills to enter a professional career. It is because PhD graduates have not been prepared to recognize, value and promote their skills; and because employers remain largely unaware of the skills PhDs have beyond their technical or scientific expertise.

Do PhDs lack professional skills?

Schein suggests that PhD programs fail to provide doctoral trainees with the necessary tools to succeed outside of academia. He is not alone in his assessment: studies show that many employers believe PhDs are overspecialized, inflexible or lacking in social skills.

But while it is true that PhDs work hard to gain detailed and comprehensive knowledge of very specific topics, PhD holders develop much more than scientific or scholarly expertise. Through doctoral training, PhDs develop transferable skills such as critical and analytical thinking skills, communication skills, information management skills and project management skills, not to mention work-relevant behaviours and attitudes such as perseverance, independence and resourcefulness, to name a few. Certainly, these skills are not unique to PhDs; many people develop similar skills in nonacademic settings, through work experience. But it is the likelihood of finding these skills, alongside scientific expertise, in a single individual that makes up the distinctive specificity of the doctorate holder. Our decade of experience as recruiters specialized in the careers of PhDs for clients in all sectors of the economy attests to the fact that employers see enormous added value in incorporating PhD skills within their organizations.

What’s more, in our view, doctoral training itself consists of an actual professional experience and should be recognized as such. During doctoral years, PhD candidates apply for scholarships and grants, publish papers (they co-author up to 30 percent of papers coming out of Quebec’s universities), teach courses, take on research contracts and get their own start-ups off the ground. These activities all represent paid professional situations in which doctoral trainees act as professional workers. Indeed, PhDs not only develop skills for research; they develop skills through research. In other words, PhDs possess a wide range of skills they can use in various professional contexts — provided that they are aware of them.

Valuing and promoting the PhD

Preparing for the rest of one’s career after the PhD is no trivial exercise, and certainly not one that comes easily. Evidence shows that PhD graduates are often unaware of their own skills; and that even when they recognize these skills, they tend to underestimate their relevance for potential employers. This lack of preparation translates into longer transitions outside of academia and results in lower employment satisfaction within the first years after the PhD. Being unprepared for life after the PhD can leave individuals feeling distressed, and in a state of mourning for a career they may not pursue. Indeed, PhD graduates need to increase their awareness of nonacademic career paths, learn to translate their doctoral skills and experiences into a narrative that employers can relate to, build professional networks and develop job search strategies.

The actors involved in determining the future of the PhD in Canada are numerous and varied. None of them has the authority or the influence to tackle what we have come to call “PhD bashing” on its own. Ideally, a task force composed of officials from the federal and provincial governments, representatives of universities, employers from all sectors and PhDs would hold consultations and formulate comprehensive and inclusive solutions. Still, some of these actors could act in their own fields and implement measures to start making a difference. Here are some that we recommend:

Researchers in the UK, the US, France and Canada have elaborated competency frameworks, which take stock of the skills and competencies that characterize PhD holders. Agencies such as Canada’s Tri-Council of granting bodies should formally adopt such frameworks at the national level to guide funding allocation and maximize the effectiveness of doctoral programs for skill development. Furthermore, government bodies such as Statistics Canada and provincial education ministries and agencies as well as universities and academic associations should differentiate between PhD holders and master’s degree holders when collecting statistical data in order to better keep track of PhD outcomes (and these data should be made publicly available). Lastly, employers should be encouraged to acknowledge the need for doctoral training as a requirement for highly specialized positions and to indicate this requirement in job postings when appropriate. As major employers themselves, federal and provincial governments should lead the way in this regard.

Easier transitions to the world outside academia for PhDs and better employment outcomes for them will come only when the PhD is better valued across society. To this end, we believe that increasing collective knowledge and recognition of doctoral skills will help to develop a common vocabulary between PhD holders, employers and universities, which would be the most promising first step toward addressing this pressing issue.

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