Supervision and PhD completion

Two days ago I posted a tweet thread that has been bouncing around quite a bit and generating much more of a reaction than I expected.

That comment was provoked by something I was reading at that moment, in which the author mentioned ways of reducing PhD times to completion. But I didn’t want to speak only to that specific article or post it, because my point was about what I see more generally in op-eds and white papers, where “recommendations” never seem to have much to do with supervision (yes, many people pointed out to me –and I was aware – that funding usually isn’t mentioned either; I’ve seen it come up in other areas of discussion, such as critiques of contingent academic labour).

I was surprised this tweet got so much attention – it’s no different from what I’ve been arguing in my blog. Given the response to what I said, I thought I would put up a quick post with some links to other information and to a few things I’ve written about this issue in the past.

Here are a few blog posts I’ve written:

Related posts on the lack of data available for Canada:

A few years ago I also posted a bibliography of research on graduate education, it’s badly in need of an update but it’s a start if you’re interested (the link’s here).

This is really only the tip of the iceberg because it’s only what I happen to have written about; there are (of course!) hundreds of other articles and posts out there. Also, many others responded with stories and good points to add to what I was saying, for example several people raised the issue of supporting, mentoring, and compensating faculty supervisors so they can do better at this work. But I hope some of what I’ve shared here is helpful for those who’ve been asking for more information.

Bibliography: Working class and first-generation academics

At the moment I’m reading a number of academic articles relating to a longer post in the works, which will be focussed on class and academia, with an emphasis on how class operates in graduate education and the (academic) job-seeking process.

Here I thought I’d share this bibliography of sources relating to “first generation” and working class graduate students and academics, which I’ve been putting together while I looked at some of the literature on this subject. And here is a link to a Google Docs copy where you can add a resource if you know of a good one that hasn’t been included yet. Cheers!

War of attrition – Asking why PhD students leave

After finishing up a bibliography of sources on graduate education, I wanted to write a post about some of the things I’d read on the topic. Because there had been recent articles about attrition and supervision, in this post I point out the link between them, citing some of the literature on PhD non-completion and its relationship to factors like academic and social integration, professionalization opportunities, and support/mentorship from faculty members. The original post is from July 17, 2013: War of Attrition.

The Times Higher Ed in the UK had a hit this past week, regarding the issue of doctoral supervision, with an article by Tara Brabazon titled “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you”. Worth noting alongside that one is a recent article by Leonard Cassuto that appeared in the USA’s Chronicle of Higher Education, regarding doctoral attrition, which has long been notoriously high (at least in the United States – an average of around 40-50 percent). Attrition rates in Canada are, as far as I know, not generally available though some numbers from eight of the “U-15” were published in this article from Margin Notes blog (and a longer discussion of completion rates and times to completion is here).

I mention these two issues together because for my dissertation I’ve been going over the research on PhD supervision and attrition, including the work of Barbara Lovitts (who’s cited by Cassuto as well), Chris Golde, and Susan Gardner among others. This research shows clear connections between supervision styles, departmental “climates”, professionalization opportunities, “student satisfaction”, and the outcomes of PhD study – including attrition.

What necessitates this research is that there are long-held misconceptions about the causes of non-completion. A key finding is that often faculty attributions of student non-completion have looked very different from either the students’ understanding of their experiences (or of what other students experience), or from the reality of their reasons for leaving. Since those who leave don’t generally get to tell their stories, assumptions can be made that they simply “didn’t have what it takes” or that the admissions committee didn’t “select” the right candidates for the program. Not only does this download the blame onto the individuals who leave, but it also masks other entrenched problems that can then continue without serious examination. Additionally, it doesn’t mesh with research that’s shown the non-completers tend to look just as “prepared” for academic work as the students who finish.

While there is no single reason why students tend to leave (in fact it’s usually a combination of reasons), a major take-away from the scholarship on this topic is that the supervisory relationship is of crucial importance – not only in whether students graduate, but also in their subsequent (academic) careers. For example, Lovitt’s book Leaving the Ivory Tower confirms that supervisors who have already helped PhD students to complete are the ones most likely to continue doing so. However, the reasons are complex. These supervisors tended to have a give-and-take relationship with students rather than expecting the students to do everything on their own. They “scaffolded” and supported their supervisees, and cared about students’ intellectual development and overall well-being; they facilitated the students’ professionalization and their academic and social “integration” into the department and the discipline, through a variety of practices.

If there are no exit interviews with those who leave their programs, then it’s much easier to continue making erroneous assumptions about why they left in the first place. This is important because there are significant policy implications for the reasons we assign for attrition. For example, even Cassuto’s article places emphasis on selection of the “right” types of students, and on certain types of student responsibility such as seeking out the department’s attrition rate before applying – though this is not information that programs tend to provide to potential students. His taxonomy of students doesn’t include those who simply don’t know what support they will need, and don’t end up receiving it; it doesn’t include those who had the capacity to complete but were abandoned by their supervisors, sabotaged by departmental politics, or derailed by personal life circumstances. All these factors are discussed in the literature on PhD attrition.

Like most other issues in education there are many causes for problems with completion. Any relationship is a two-way street, as pointed out in this post by Raul Pacheco-Vega. There are plenty of faculty who are already engaging in the helpful practices described by Lovitts and other researchers, as well as PhD students who don’t put in enough work, or who probably shouldn’t have chosen to start the degree in the first place. But when it comes to implementing solutions, the nature of students’ supervisory relationships should be one of the primary targets of inquiry and intervention.

An example of an important issue that could be addressed is that of responsibility. Reasonable student expectations of faculty should be made clearer, and tacit institutional and professional knowledge – which is so crucial to students’ success in graduate programs – must be made explicit rather than being left to students to discover for themselves. If students understand what they should expect from a good supervisor – and for what they are responsible themselves – they may be able to make a more informed decision about this important working relationship (and whether in fact it’s working at all).

In some cases, this kind of change will take time and a great deal of consideration because if we take the research seriously, the problems extend beyond merely asking professors and students to engage more often in certain practices. They may be problems with the culture of a department or program, or in fact (considering some of the comments from Lovitts’ interviewees) the nature of academe itself, which is where we have to ask ourselves – what kind of a university do we want, and what kind of faculty will be working there? For example, if students also listed “personal problems” (as many of them did) including stress on existing relationships and the demands of raising children, does this mean those who desire a more balanced life will be inherently unsuited to academic work?

PhD students’ “dissatisfaction” should not be dismissed as merely the whining complaints of the academically inadequate. When students don’t know what to expect, they don’t have the opportunity to align their decisions and behaviour with the appropriate expectations; when they don’t receive adequate support, they may not know how to get what they’re missing, or indeed that they’re missing something in the first place (until it’s too late). Not only that but if we ignore these issues, do we not face a reproduction of what may be the worst aspects of academic life, in the name of “trial by fire”? Those who “make it through” are often assumed to have some inherent set of qualities that make them a better “fit” for academic life. But closer attention shows that this clearly isn’t the case, which means – even if the attrition rates are lower in Canada – we need to seek out appropriate explanations.

PhD education and mental health: A follow-up

In December, 2011, I wrote a blog post about PhD students and metal health as a major issue in graduate education. The post below is one that I wrote to build on the many issues that came out of discussions generated by that first piece. Here is a link to the original post from January 3, 2012: PhD education and mental health: A follow-up.

As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.

Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.

Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.

I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.

Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).

In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.

Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.

Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.

“My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition.

I wrote this post about depression and attrition among PhD students, thinking I’d probably chosen a topic that would only be of interest to a niche audience. To my surprise it became the most popular blog post I’d written (and still is). I still think this indicates that not enough public attention has been directed to the structural elements that contribute to mental health issues among PhDs and in other student groups as well.

In a follow-up post I addressed a number of the issues that had been raised in the comments on the initial piece. These include the role of the “ideal” for and of students; insecurity and isolation; lack of information before applying for the PhD, and the difficulty of accessing resources to help with mental health issues.

The first post was republished on World.com on January 3, 2012, and a summary appeared on The Scholarly Web on the Times Higher Education UK website on January 12, 2012. Here is a link to the original piece from December 14, 2011:  My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition.

From November to March is prime time for academic burn-out in graduate programs — I’m convinced of that. Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing; it can be easy to sink into a trough of exhaustion and stress, and not climb out of it for months. But rather than just the seasonal doldrums, my sense is that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate education.

I asked one fellow student her opinion of this, and she replied, “it seems like everyone I know in academia is depressed.” On another occasion when I was very unwell, I was told that “everyone” has some kind of breakdown during the PhD; my troubles were nothing to worry about!

Is this a serious structural (and normalized) issue rather than an anecdotal one, and if so, why is no one discussing it? When I sampled the Twitterverse, I received many replies reinforcing and elaborating the impression that yes, this is a problem — perhaps now more than ever — and that it can’t be reduced to students’ individual propensities and “weaknesses.”

In the current context, there are plenty of structural issues that contribute to the PhD as a time when students are vulnerable to stress.

Within their programs, students face a more intense workload than in their undergraduate degrees, and they may for the first time be around students with as much academic aptitude as themselves. These factors can contribute to “imposter syndrome,” the sense that one is about to be “found out” for not really being smart enough. As adults being placed in a subordinate position, some PhD students experience a sense of infantilization alongside the conflicting expectation that they develop a professional identity.

In terms of the student’s academic experience, the PhD emphasizes a transition to autonomous work that is often a new challenge. The lack of structure, and unclear boundaries about responsibilities, mean that some students are unsure what help they “can” ask for from supervisors. This is compounded by the lengthy isolation from peers that often occurs in the later stages of research (in the humanities and social sciences at least).

Career-related pressures in academe have intensified in the face of recession and long-term political economic changes that have affected the university and its governance. Graduate programs in Canada and elsewhere have increased enrollments often without proportional increases to the tenured faculty who provide supervision, or to non-repayable funding. The shortage of funding can lead to student debt and other financial difficulties as well as more intense competition for grants and teaching positions, and pressure to “complete” sooner. Fewer tenured faculty means that students may need to compete for academic mentorship and support as well. And all these changes have helped to feed further competition in the form of a tightened market for academic (i.e. tenure-track faculty) jobs; this kind of competition can be depressing and stressful.

While only a relatively small proportion of PhD graduates obtain permanent faculty positions, in many PhD programs there is still a deeply-held assumption that students can or should strive to engage in research-oriented academic careers. Thus the definition of successtends to be rather narrow, making it easier to feel like a “failure.”

The culture of academic replication — the inculcation of certain academic goals above all others, in spite the “reality” of the larger job market for PhDs — has been roundly criticized, even compared to a cult. Taking on an awkward double stance, many students are engaging in a process of translation and re-valuation of themselves and their work that continues until long after the degree is over; some must overcome a long-held sense of exceptionalism with regards to their academic chances.

And of course, alongside the professional pressures there are also the so-called “personal” issues and events that affect everyone, and which can throw one’s entire degree (and life) off-track if they occur — a break up or divorce, for example, which can itself result from relationship problems triggered by the academic lifestyle.

A larger problem is not only the context described above (and its effects), but also the thickly oppressive silence that surrounds it. Not coincidentally, I think, there is a parallel silence around the issue of attrition. Considering the high rate of attrition from PhD programs and the cost of graduate education, you’d assume there would be a plenty of research on the reasons why students “drop out.” But according to Chris Golde (2000) we still don’t have much information on why students leave PhD programs, partly because PhD attrition “looks bad” for everyone involved (responsibility for this “failure” is usually transferred to the student). I wonder how many students simply leave due to mental health and related issues brought on or exacerbated by the psychological minefield of the PhD process — and how much of this is preventable.

The luck of the draw

In this post I discussed a few issues relating to how graduate scholarships are assessed and assigned to Canadian Masters and PhD students, and what students need to do to have a chance at winning them. I actually changed the word “grant” to “scholarship” below, because in the original piece I wasn’t clearly differentiating. Here is a link to the post from September 8, 2011: The luck of the draw.

For academically ambitious Canadian university students, including those finishing their undergraduate degrees this year and those already in graduate school, September is scholarship application season.

Application-writing is like the unpleasant medicine of graduate school. While the outcomes are beneficial in terms of professional development (and sometimes, funding), the process of application is painfully difficult and nerve-wracking for many students.

Though we’re fortunate that the funding is available at all, the competition for federal Tri-Council scholarships — those from SSHRCNSERC and CIHR — is intense, and with increasing numbers of graduate students applying that situation is only likely to worsen. Particularly after a recession and a significant increase to enrolments, funding is tight. Financial pressures on grad students intensify the competitive nature of funding, as well as the need for students to distinguish themselves from their peers in the ever more difficult academic market.

If financial pressure and academic competition alone aren’t enough, the process of application can also feel like a course of bureaucratic hoop-jumping. I suffer from “bureaucratophobia”, and I always felt anxious having to order transcripts (from four different universities), getting the “ranking” forms and letters from referees, and making sure to correctly fill out every esoteric section of the actual applications, as well as sticking to the technical directions for producing the proposal. I remember being told at one point that I’d used the wrong colour pen.

Graduate students get stressed about competitive scholarships in part because they tend to feel as if they have no control over the outcome of their application; most of the selection process is hidden from view. Our lack of insight into the process can make the outcome look like “luck”. But is that an accurate assessment?

For SSHRC grants, with which I have direct experience, the application is often worked on by students with their supervisors for more than a month before it’s due. But building a successful application is a process that actually starts much earlier, since the first “screening” mechanism is your GPA. Undergraduate grades, built up over years, are an important factor especially when applying for a Master’s scholarship.

You also need time to build relationships with the professors who’ll end up supporting your application by writing letters of reference. Some students now find it difficult to find refereesfrom their undergraduate years, having had little or no contact with permanent faculty members.

The last thing to develop is your project proposal, in which you’re required to imagine and articulate a feasible piece of research that can be completed in the allowed period. Often there are no examples provided of successful proposals. Even when examples are available, you can’t see what the rest of that person’s application looked like, so you don’t have a clear sense of why they may have won.

After the application leaves your hands it’s passed to an internal audit committee at the program level, then to a faculty committee (often a faculty of graduate studies). The desired result is that it’s sent on from the university to the Tri-Council in Ottawa, where there’s a chance that funding will follow.

At the student’s end of things, much of this process is about waiting, in a great tense silence filled by the effort to “just forget about it” between submission in October and announcement of results sometime late in the second semester.

Graduate students fear that the assessment process is not meritocratic. When all applicants have A-averages, when every proposal is of high quality, how are decisions made? Of course politics — of individuals, departments, and universities — can make its way into decision-making that is supposed to be about “merit”. Perhaps your topic isn’t currently a major issue in the field, or you lose out because of the internal dynamics of a department or academic discipline. As an applicant, you have no way of knowing because no feedback is returned, only a result.

There may well be an element of sheer luck; certainly there’s a hefty helping of serendipity, which isn’t the same thing. More often there’s just a long-term plan, a lot of good mentoring, hard work, and the right topic or project at the right time.

I’m lucky in that my own tribulations with scholarship applications have come to an end. And I’m even more fortunate in that I won scholarships for my Master’s degree and for my PhD. I got to see the most positive result, though certainly the process was extremely stressful even with strong support I had from faculty mentors. Perhaps the experiences of many graduate students — anxiety and frustration with the process — point to the need for more specific explanations from the Tri-Council and more advice and support during scholarship applications.

Minding the gaps – PhD students and social media

For HASTAC I participated by helping to create a panel with Bonnie Stewart, sava saheli singh, and Trent M. Kays. The panel was titled “Cohorts without borders: New doctoral subjects”.

I have the basic outline of my talk in a set of PowerPoint slides (I’ll possibly turn it into a better version on Prezi later on): Minding the Gaps: PhD Students & Social Media.

Know your value

In this post I addressed the idea of the “academic economy” (and culture) being one in which we’re required to offer up our time without compensation, a holdover from a past time when more elite students would be attending (and would have more resources at their disposal).

This post never seems to lose its relevance; I see the issues I raised here being discussed and re-discussed regularly on Twitter and in other blogs. I’m raising the issue of a part of the “hidden curriculum” of graduate education, which is that we learn not only to work for free but also to de-value our own labour – within academe but also if we choose to leave and work elsewhere.

The changing demographics in graduate education over the past 30 years should be reason enough to question these assumptions. As it is, those with privilege will always find it easier to get ahead in an environment where not only do we have to work for free to earn the right of recognition, but we’re even expected to pay for the opportunity of sharing what we’ve done (i.e. the conference model). This long-standing arrangement is not one that supports inclusion, and I think that point should be made more often and more loudly, since graduate enrollments are expanding and the amount of financial support for their academic participation is diminishing.

Here is a link to the original post, from July 19, 2011: Know your value.

Summer is “conference season” in higher education, a time when many professors, graduate students and administrators find themselves hastily packing the smallest possible suitcase in order to spend three or four days in some remote and/or obscure location.

Conferences can be a great academic opportunity and are presented to graduate students as such. You can meet others and share ideas, as well as giving and receiving feedback and discovering new possibilities for collaboration. But to be realistic, conferences are also an expensive (and therefore a somewhat exclusive) opportunity. Attendees must pay for travel, accommodation, and of course the ubiquitous registration fees. In the past I was able to do presentations in the U.K. and in Washington D.C., and at other conferences within Canada, only because I had a federal grant supporting my studies. These were incredibly rewarding experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.

The high cost of conferences is an example of the strangely skewed economy of the academy. For many graduate students, it’s an expense that is beyond their limited budgets. Yet there is little hope of finding an academic job without attending and presenting at conferences during the course of the Ph.D. Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.

In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour). It’s considered both a privilege and a necessity to have something published, since reviewed publications are another “must” in the process of building an academic career. While we are paid to teach, that’s the work that tends to lack prestige and is not considered as helpful for long-term career development.

What this means is that in graduate school we get used to working for nothing, even as we’re expected to invest heavily in expensive professional development activities. By attending conferences, we pay for the opportunity to present our work to our (future) peers, who are the primary “gatekeepers” to academe. This system helps to perpetuate privilege because only “those who have afforded to work for free will get jobs. The vicious circle is maddening” (Ernesto Priego, July 2, 2011, Twitter).

Thus in spite of increasing accessibility in terms of enrolments, graduate education still tends to be stratified by socioeconomic class (and plagued by high attrition rates). Who can afford to spend time on publication papers and conference proposals and travel, when they must earn money for tuition and rent?* For grad students, especially those from under-privileged circumstances, this can be a trap; and the assumed, eventual “payoff” is now less available than ever as tenure track hires decrease and low-paying contract teaching becomes the norm for an ever-greater proportion of new Ph.Ds.

While all this may seem “normal” to those working within academe, just try explaining the conference system, for example, to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the way academic careers work. My mother has often asked “when are they going to start paying you to go to these things?”. Viewed from this angle, it’s no surprise that the “investment” in graduate education, specifically the Ph.D, can seem like an illogical one (in spite of all the non-material benefits)—or even a “raw deal”, as many other commentators have framed it already.

The “academic economy” I described may have made more sense in the now-distant past when tenure-track jobs were more readily available, and when publishing was something you could leave until after graduation. But permanent-track professors actually don’t really do these things (publishing, conferences, and so on) for “free”. They earn a stable salary and they receive institutional support for research-related activities, which are considered part of the job. On the other hand, graduate students and early-career academics—particularly those who find themselves doing a lot of contract teaching or other part-time work—are less likely to have the time and resources to fully develop their CVs; and as the academic job market has tightened, the bar has been raised in terms of the level of professionalisation required.

It matters how students “get ahead” in graduate school because the most successful Ph.D students go on to become faculty who help carry forward the university as an institution. If the academic profession becomes a “labour of love” for all but the most elite students and professors, what are we saying about the worth of our education system and our concern for diversity and accessibility within it? What example are we setting for future students (and potential professors)—who will they be?

The contemporary university appears to undervalue the skills, talents, and education of many grad students, rewarding only those committed to an extremely narrow track of professional development and willing and able to make the (material) investments necessary to pursue it. Meanwhile, in other contexts our Ph.D-related experience is much sought after. My recent experience in a career course has been somewhat eye-opening in this respect. While all members of the group are Ph.D candidates or graduates, we each had a hard time coming up with lists of our “skills” because we’re so used to taking our own capacities for granted. Yet once “translated”, our collective experience and expertise was impressive, and applicable to many of the most interesting positions turning up in job searches.

My point is not that we should do nothing for free, or that we should all leave the academic profession for higher-paying jobs in other areas. What I want to emphasise is that many graduate students have little sense of the worth of their contributions beyond the logic of the academic system (and this has psychological effects, too). While it may no longer lead to a full-time, permanent faculty job, the PhD is not a devalued degree; it’s only under-valued in the academic marketplace, because desirable jobs are scarce.

Because academe presents itself as a meritocracy, often those who “fail” tend to blame themselves for it. But “pure” meritocracy is a myth. This is why knowing your own value means understanding not just what you have to offer in multiple contexts, but also that you have real choices, that there are fruitful possibilities, and that given the kinds of sacrifices involved, “traditional” academic work may not be the best among them.

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*In Canada, there’s some assistance to be had: students may win non-repayable merit scholarships through provincial and/or federal governments. Some universities have options for reimbursement, through graduate students associations, academic unions, faculties or schools of graduate studies, and sometimes through individual programs and departments. There’s increasing demand for all these different forms of funding, but at least some support is available.

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.