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Eliza Bateman, a PhD candidate at McGill University, is leading team of researchers looking at PhD career outcomes.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

More PhDs are finding jobs as tenure-track professors than previous labour market estimates have found, says a new study that will add some much-missing data to a continuing debate about whether Canada is producing too many doctoral graduates.

A third of graduates with doctoral degrees from Ontario universities are in tenure-track positions somewhere in the world, with half of them working as professors in Canada, the study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found.

"The results show that PhDs do well, maybe more than the popular conversation imagines," said Martin Hicks, who led the research project for HEQCO, an educational think tank of the Ontario government.

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Research released last fall by the Conference Board of Canada had suggested that fewer than one in five PhD graduates end up as tenured or tenure-track professors in Canada. The new study found more positive outcomes by also looking at graduates who are working around the world. Another third of PhD holders have found jobs in engineering, health care, science research or government, the HEQCO study also discovered. That's important because it shows that the economy needs the thousands of new graduate spots that have been created in Ontario and across the country over the past decade, Mr. Hicks said.

"When Ontario decided to deliberately grow its PhD capacity, the objective was in part to produce more professors, but really the focus was to produce more highly qualified people for the economy," he said.

Yet questions have been raised about whether the skills that doctoral students learn in university are preparing them for the jobs they are most likely to get, in business, non-profits or government. The Conference Board study had recommended that universities help grads to better market themselves to the private sector.

Business also has to understand how advanced degree-holders can drive innovation, experts say.

"Canada is not a world leader in utilizing PhDs," said Brad Nelson, an associate dean at Concordia University's School of Graduate Studies. "We have to educate Canadians on the incredible value they represent."

Four of Concordia's humanities departments are participating in another research study that aims to discover how PhDs found non-academic jobs and will help them network with one another. Called Trace, the project began its work this month and is tracing the career paths of PhD humanities graduates from 24 universities over the past decade. Its results will be released in the spring.

"We hope to do some myth-busting and to show that humanities students find meaningful employment," said Eliza Bateman, one of the leaders of the McGill University research team. Flexibility about career outcomes is key to the PhD remaining relevant, said Ms. Bateman, who worked as a lawyer before going back to school to study for a PhD in law. "Coming from professional work and going back to do a PhD is a different path," Ms. Bateman said. "I have never seen it as something that only makes you fit for academic work."

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Ideally, universities themselves would collect and distribute information about graduate student outcomes, researchers say. At the moment, many keep track only of those who land academic jobs. The results of the Trace project could encourage more schools to collect the data, said Paul Yachnin, the McGill English professor who is leading the research.

"It's an ethical responsibility to have a picture of where PhD graduates are," he said.

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