The days when a PhD was the fast-track to a tenure-track professorship at a research university are long gone. In fact, graduates of doctoral programs have been taking jobs outside of academia for quite some time, but it used to be a sort of “dirty little secret.”
Then came the infamous So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities video, and the secret was out:
Although this video is a parody of academic life (and the dim prospects for young academics), the discussion it led to has been useful in guiding universities to re-think their responsibilities toward graduate students. In the wake of these discussions, some people have called for a complete change in the nature of PhD training, while others have called to halt or slow doctoral enrolment in certain programs where academic jobs are few and far between.
Those conversations, though, too often start with the premise that to be anything other than a professor is failure – “a waste of a PhD.” But if students learn skills in their PhD programs that make them happy and productive in non-academic positions, then those are success stories, not failures, and we need to recognize them as such. As I noted in an OpEd in today’s Globe & Mail:
Doctoral work provides students with critical skills that are key to sustaining and building Canada’s economic, social, and cultural prosperity. A quick look at a university’s graduate degree level expectations for doctoral students shows the PhD is much more than just a thorough understanding of a substantial body of knowledge. PhDs are expected to communicate complex and ambiguous ideas, orally and in writing; to locate, evaluate, and synthesize novel information; and to apply that information in new situations. They learn to work independently, and, in many fields, they learn the value of teamwork as well. They learn to take risks. They learn resilience from failure. They learn how to build on ideas from success. These are exactly the sorts of skills Canada’s workers need in our evolving knowledge-based economy.
The most important re-thinking we need to do with respect to PhD programs is to ensure we educate students not only with disciplinary knowledge, but also with realistic expectations about career outcomes. We need to arm graduate students with the ability to adapt the skills they acquire in their doctoral studies to a wide range of situations, so that they can succeed in any career path.
We hope that the resources available here on MyGradSkills.ca are a step in that direction, and we look forward to doing even more to help all graduate students succeed, inside and outside of academia.
You can read full OpEd piece here: Faculty Jobs are Rare, but Canada Still Needs Its PhDs
Also check out two companion reports from HEQCO:
Beyond Labs and Libraries: Career Pathways for Graduate Students, by Sekuler, Crow, and Annan
So You Want to Earn a PhD? The Attraction, Realities and Outcomes of Pursuing a Doctorate, by Maldonado, Wiggers, and Arnold