Who will hire all the PhDs?

The latest article I’ve written for the Globe & Mail looks at the question of whether Canada produces “too many” PhDs. This is something I’ve also discussed in past blog posts and presentations. I still think there is a huge disconnect in the way the government imagines PhDs as “skilled workers”, and the reality of their apparent job options. In the future I’d really like to do more research on how people come to see themselves as “successful” or not in a PhD programme, and how that affects their career decisions. The full text of the article is below.

A persistent theme in current discussions about graduate education and its outcomes is the question of whether Canada is “producing too many PhDs.” While enrollments (and numbers of PhD graduates) have increased with the encouragement of policy, more of these grads now struggle to find employment that matches the level and nature of their education – particularly employment in universities, as tenure-track faculty. The situation in Canada is not as dire as in the States where just this week it was reported that three quarters of faculty work as adjuncts, but accounts of under-employed PhDs working as waiters and cab drivers have become more common.

The question of precisely how many PhDs we “need” is one that’s directly tied to our ideas about the purpose of doctoral education. Debates about the ideal number of PhDs tend to be framed in terms of the academic job market, more specifically the demand for tenure-track professors at universities, because of the assumption that the PhD is intended primarily for those who want a career in academe. This assumption permeates doctoral education, partly because a doctorate is required in order to become a professor – professors are the primary educators of new PhDs.

Yet for 30 years or more, the availability of these jobs has been declining. The traditional academic career has become a focus of debate and critique because while PhD programmes have grown, tenure-track hiring has not kept pace. Universities have seen their resources reduced relative to the number of students enrolled, and they’ve coped partly by hiring contract faculty for undergraduate teaching. Meanwhile, we hear reports of hundreds of applications per tenure-track position, and of increasingly inflated expectations for applicants. Each cohort faces competition from the unemployed grads of previous years, as well as applicants from other jurisdictions such as the United States, Australia, and the U.K. Those who don’t find long-term faculty jobs may end up working in low-paid, unstable contract teaching and postdoctoral positions. This is why a now-infamous article in the Economist claimed the PhD is a “waste of time.”

In the past, there has never been a 100 per cent correlation between getting a PhD and becoming a professor, but the situation now seems more acute. With all the un/under-employment horror stories circulating, why do governments want to keep raising the number of PhDs? One reason is that they don’t view the PhD as a route exclusively to the professoriate. The logic of the “knowledge economy” suggests that increasing the number of people with advanced degrees – known as “highly qualified personnel” – leads to more innovation, and thus more economic development. What governments want are not more professors, but more well-educated people in many areas of the workforce. What governments can’t do is ensure that some students are keen to graduate with plans to enter those other areas, as opposed to academe.

Can there really be a purpose for the PhD other than as preparation for the tenure track? For more academics and students the answer is now “yes,” but in many doctoral programmes outcomes other than permanent academic employment are not viewed positively. Those who pursue them may receive less institutional support and faculty mentorship, because PhD supervisors are usually faculty who have primarily worked within the university, and they’re less likely to have cultivated professional relationships elsewhere.

Canada is only “producing too many PhDs” if every student is being encouraged to pursue an academic career and nothing else. In that case, there certainly aren’t enough positions to go around. One solution is that universities should increase tenure-track hiring so that more full-time permanent work is available. Yet even if this happened, it’s unlikely there would be enough jobs to “absorb” all those currently under– and unemployed, who are still on the academic job market. Should PhD programmes be reduced in size? Perhaps, but the problem with simply reducing enrollments is that it’s likely to restrict doctoral education to those who can most easily access the right resources. This lowers the chances that traditionally underprivileged groups will be represented among faculty at Canadian universities.

What’s most important is for prospective PhDs to have a clear understanding not only of the competitive conditions for academic jobs, but also the range of possibilities opened up by doctoral education, which are far more diverse than those generally presented in graduate programmes. Those possibilities must also be developed actively through collaboration between universities, governments, other non-academic organizations and students, so that the promise of advanced education isn’t lost due to lack of mentorship, guidance and opportunity.

Viewing every doctoral candidate solely as a future tenure-track prof is no more helpful than assuming each of us should calculate our own value only in terms of clear economic benefit to the nation. The assumptions in each case conflate students’ needs with the competing agendas of governments, which view PhDs as bearers of “human capital,” and of the graduate programmes that gain prestige by educating successful professors. But PhD grads have personal contexts to consider and lives to live, and we need to make sure they’re informed and prepared enough to make decisions that will work for them. Only then will we start to see a change in the way doctoral education works, not just for the economy and for the government but for graduates themselves.