Flashback 20 years ago to little Janey's first day at kindergarten: She was bright-eyed and filled with dreams. She could be a scientist, a writer, a builder….
Fast-forward back to the present, for Janey's first day as a graduate student: Her eyes are now filled with dread and uncertainty about her future. Janey loves her field of study, but she knows that the years when a PhD was the ticket to a professorship at a prestigious research institution are as long gone as those joyful days of finger painting and puddle splashing.
As the number of graduate students across North America skyrocketed over the past decade – with Ontario graduate enrollments alone doubling from about 10,000 to 20,000 – competition for the increasingly scarce full-time, tenure-stream faculty positions has become fierce. For example, in 2007 Canadian universities granted nearly 5,000 PhDs and another 6,000 recent PhDs were conducting postdoctoral research; but that year, only about 2,600 new full-time faculty members were hired at Canadian universities. It's now estimated that at most one out of every four PhDs will end up in full-time university faculty positions, with the vast majority of doctoral students finding employment elsewhere.
Some of the decline in PhDs taking faculty positions stems from a simple mismatch of supply and demand; some stems from students deciding that the pressure of the tenure-track is not for them; some stems from students' desire to make a difference in the world in other ways. For example, a recent study at the University of California showed that, by the end of their doctoral studies, only 36 per cent of male and 27 per cent of female students were interested in pursuing faculty positions at research institutions.
The myriad calls for the demise of the traditional PhD are premature, however. 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.
It is no wonder, then, that graduate degree holders in Canada have higher earning potential and lower unemployment than those who hold Bachelor's degrees or other credentials. Obviously, though, income is only one measure of success: Graduate credentials also offer degree holders increased options for careers, so that Master's and Doctoral graduates can find positions that fit better with their interests, at least in theory. But as any graduate student will tell you, theory and practice do not always align. Universities and other groups have realized that we need to do more to help bring the theory and practice surrounding graduate employment into alignment, particularly given the changing landscape in academia.
Regardless of the cause of diminishing academic positions for graduate degree holders, as educators, we need to respect our students' evolving goals and desires. Yes, universities need to ensure graduate students are well trained in their specific disciplines. But universities also need to ensure students recognize and can make use of all the transferable skills they acquire along the way, so that students can succeed regardless of their ultimate career path. We need to assure students that careers inside or outside of academia are equally valid and valued.
To help graduate students succeed, we do not need to re-invent the PhD. We need to provide high-quality, meaningful professional skills training that will enhance, not diminish, students' academic programs. Professional skills training should supplement, not substitute for, disciplinary learning. Canada is fortunate to have strong and increasing support on this front from organizations like Mitacs (with country-wide professional skills development workshops and internship opportunities), the federal research agencies (with collaborative research and training experience and partnership programs at NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC), and resources like the new MyGradSkills.ca (which just launched with 18 online professional skills-training modules, free for the roughly 60,000 graduate students in Ontario).
Obviously, these are just a few steps in the right direction. Universities and our partner institutions have much more work to do to support our students; and students need to feel free to express and fully explore their career desires. Students should succeed because of their graduate training, not in spite of it. But initiatives like those mentioned above, and the ever-increasing awareness that graduate professional skills training is a critical supplement to disciplinary training puts us on the right path toward helping students succeed regardless of their career path.
The ultimate goal is that all of Canada's Janeys (and Johnnys) once again dream, not dread, knowing that graduate school will help them find their future.
Allison Sekuler is the Associate Vice-President and Dean of Graduate Studies at McMaster University, and past Chair of the Ontario Council of Graduate Schools at the Council of Ontario Universities. She led the inter-university Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills Training, which created MyGradSkills.ca.