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Study of University of Toronto PhD graduates finds few end up in private sector

Students at the University of Toronto's downtown campus on Nov. 2, 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A new survey of the labour market outcomes of PhD graduates has revealed that those who earn a doctoral degree are far more likely to find jobs at a university at the end of their studies, with only about a fifth of all graduates working in the private sector.

The survey of more than 10,000 graduates from the University of Toronto who earned their degrees between 2000 and 2015 is the largest in Canada to date. U of T produces about a third of Ontario's PhD graduates and a sixth of the approximately 6,000 doctorates awarded in Canada annually.

A slightly higher proportion of PhD graduates from U of T end up in tenure-track positions than previous studies of all doctoral degree holders in Canada have found. But the current survey also shows vast differences in career paths between science, humanities and social-science graduates.

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While 80 per cent of people with PhDs in humanities work in the postsecondary sector and only 6 per cent are in the private sector, fewer than half of graduates in the physical sciences work in higher education and 40 per cent work in industry. Half of those who have jobs in higher education in both fields are tenure-track professors.

"What we see in the data is that people are getting a diversity of jobs," said Joshua Barker, dean of the school of graduate studies at U of T. "It does not surprise me that employers are recognizing the value [of a PhD], particularly in sectors where there is complex work going on, in biotech and infotech, but also in [higher education] where you are the infrastructure of the broader knowledge economy."

A comprehensive and interactive website will be unveiled on Thursday that allows anyone to delve much deeper into the data. Researchers will be able to compare labour-market outcomes across dozens of variables, including cohorts, gender, field of study and department, citizenship status and even top employers.

PhDs who work in the private sector are most likely to be at Google, Intel and Canada's banks, the survey discovered.

"I'm sure there will be other social scientists who want to connect this data to the broader labour market," Dr. Barker said. "Some of the changes are a function of changes in the university, but many of them are a result of changes taking place elsewhere."

The survey comes during a continuing debate about how Canada can ensure that it benefits from the skills of those with advanced degrees. Starting a decade ago, Ontario funded an expansion of graduate education that doubled enrolment in PhD programs across the province. At U of T, the growth has mainly been in physical and life sciences, with only a 40 per cent increase of graduates from the social sciences, and flat numbers in the humanities.

Compared to global peers, Canada still lags in the number of PhDs it produces. Multiple reports, from the Conference Board of Canada and the Council of Canadian Academies, have found that Canadian businesses are less likely than those in other countries to turn to PhD grads to conduct advanced research.

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Some university programs offer more defined pathways to a career in industry than others, the U of T survey shows. For example, a third of science graduates working for private companies are in pharmaceuticals and biotech. In contrast, social sciences and humanities grads working outside of higher education can be found everywhere in the economy. Twelve per cent are in banking and finance, another 12 per cent are in arts or media and 7 per cent in management. Half are working in other sectors.

Integrating academic and professional training would help graduates establish careers more quickly, said Matthew McKean, the associate director of education at the Conference Board of Canada.

"I'm optimistic that we will start thinking about early intervention. Not just about how to write a better resume, but how to prepare PhD researchers themselves to think about research in partnership with business, industry and the public sector," said Dr. McKean, who is working on a study of career outcomes of PhDs in social sciences and humanities.

One model Canadian institutions could consider is the "industrial PhD," he said. In Sweden and Norway, university-employer partnerships allow students to work for a company while pursuing research related to the needs of that industry.

Many students and institutions are already aware of the range of employment outcomes that are possible after a PhD.

Farah Mawani is a postdoctoral fellow with the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) focusing on reducing health inequities globally. Throughout her PhD in public health, she worked as a policy analyst on health initiatives. "I knew early on that a purely academic experience would not be the best path," said Dr. Mawani, who is doing her fellowship through a partnership between the University of Alberta and Dignitas International, an organization that works to improve health outcomes in marginalized communities globally.

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"When we apply to the fellowship, they ask us to select three competencies and we write a professional development plan and share it with our mentors. Then we do a three-month assessment," she said.

U of T's study was completed by finding graduates online and cross-referencing their current position across two different websites. The study located 88 per cent of 10,886 graduates in the 15-year period, of whom 67 per cent were Canadians and 33 per cent were international students or permanent residents.

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