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Many Ontario graduates find work at universities, with those in humanities, social sciences the most likely to stay in academia.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Almost a third of recent PhD graduates from Ontario universities are working as tenured or tenure-track university professors within a few years of finishing their degrees, a new study has found, with students in the humanities and social sciences much more likely to stay in academia than engineering or science grads.

The study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario shows that half of doctoral graduates from 2009 have found jobs as professors or university administrators, with 50 per cent of them working in Canada, and the rest divided between North America and elsewhere.

An international debate has been under way for the past few years over whether universities are producing too many doctoral graduates for the number of academic jobs available. Skeptics have pointed to the increasing proportion of teaching done by faculty working on contract to argue that graduate programs need to prepare students for careers in other sectors or should be scaled back.

"Everybody wants to hear what happens to PhD graduates," said Linda Jonker, who researched and wrote the 32-page study. "We hear that they can't find jobs, but this sheds light on where they are working."

The study suggests there are many paths to a career after graduation and wide differences in outcomes between fields. Only a fifth of PhDs in engineering are working as professors, but that number doubles for those in social sciences.

"Everyone thinks it's all humanities PhDs, but it's not," said Martin Hicks, executive director of data and statistics at the council. "We have a good, strong supply pipeline, going in both directions, back into the academy and into industry … ."

If a student is determined to teach, the study suggests choosing the right university from which to get a degree is crucial. A fifth of PhD grads from the University of Toronto who are now academics are working at a leading university in Canada or abroad – double the percentage across the province's other postsecondary institutions. (The study defines a leading institution as one that shows up on one of three different ranking tables: Times Higher Education, QS or Academic World.)

"In how well do your PhD graduates fare in the elite class of universities out there in the world, we're not surprised that Toronto is in a league of its own," Mr. Hicks said, pointing to the school's research strength.

The study raises the question of whether provincial funding for expanding graduate education should be targeted more than it already is.

"We know that building a PhD program requires a huge investment and a lot of resources; it's a very different beast compared to undergraduate education. Perhaps a more efficient way to allocate resources would be better focused on Ontario's research-intensive universities," Ms. Jonker said.

The study gathered its data through social media, an increasingly popular, if labour-intensive, way to get at labour market outcomes in the absence of Statistics Canada data.

It found the 2,310 people who graduated with a PhD in 2009 from Ontario universities through convocation lists, and then traced their careers on LinkedIn and university websites. A similar study, called Trace, is under way for humanities graduates at 24 universities across Canada.

This summer, U of T will undertake its own "10,000 PhDs" research, using social media to find the past decade of doctoral graduates and what they are doing now.

"We want to build a resource of alumni that we can tap into in the future," said Reinhart Reithmeier, a biochemistry professor at the University of Toronto. For the past year, he has worked as a special adviser on graduate studies for the university.

"What can you do with a PhD in English? Lots, it turns out, but our students don't know where to tap into those domains."

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