So you want to earn a PhD? The stark realities of the university doctorate

Doctoral enrolments in Ontario universities have nearly doubled over the last decade, with roughly two-thirds of doctoral students hoping to become university professors…

Toronto, April 30, 2013 – Doctoral enrolments in Ontario universities have nearly doubled over the last decade, with roughly two-thirds of doctoral students hoping to become university professors. Considering that Canadian full-time professors are now the highest paid in the world – working more hours but enjoying better job satisfaction than their counterparts in other countries – it’s a worthy goal.

But according to two new reports from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) the demand of full-time faculty positions vastly outstrips the supply.  Estimates are that less than 25% of PhD students in Canada will secure full-time, tenure-stream research and teaching positions, prompting a growing angst among current and newly minted PhDs about their preparedness for life in a non-academic career.

The HEQCO @Issue paper, So You Want to Earn a PhD? The Attraction, Realities and Outcomes of Pursuing a Doctorate, is a detailed synthesis of current research about the changing landscape of the doctorate in Ontario. Beyond Labs and Libraries: Career Pathways for Graduate Students is a qualitative study of the views of 67 (predominantly) doctoral students and graduates at two Ontario universities.

Doctoral enrolments in Ontario increased from more than 10,000 in 1999 to just over 19,000 in 2009, largely driven by federal and provincial funding that anticipated the retirement of older university faculty members and an expanding undergraduate student population (especially in Ontario).  Although data consistently show that doctoral graduates in Canada have among the lowest rates of unemployment, the current reality in academe is a dearth of opportunity – which focus group participants attribute to funding cuts, the end of mandatory retirement, larger classes, more courses being taught online and the growing use of contract positions to replace faculty retirements.

Yet despite the shortage of academic jobs, many doctoral programs, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, continue to train and mentor students for careers in academia that are getting harder to come by. 

And doctoral students who pursue non-academic employment often feel at a loss after graduation,  particularly if they have had little contact with the world outside of academia. A majority of the participants in the qualitative study said their graduate education had not adequately prepared them for careers outside of traditional academic paths. Some said they feel unable to talk openly with their supervisors about their thoughts or plans outside of academe.

While efforts are being made to provide doctoral candidates with internships and other exposure to non-academic career paths, they are largely voluntary initiatives and are not part of the requirements of most doctoral programs. And although research shows that doctoral students feel they had a supportive advisor and experienced a good quality of teaching, they are less enthusiastic about career development and other professional skills training.

Together, the reports call for a number of improvements including creating a central repository of all opportunities that support  student professional skills development and career training, ideally shared openly across programs within and across universities, as well as providing students with access to information on career options and skills required. Governments are urged to consider their objectives in promoting increased PhD enrolments and monitor whether the investments are leading to desired outcomes, while graduate programs should acknowledge that the majority of PhD graduates will not secure full-time academic positions.

Students are advised to consider whether a doctoral program is really suited to their personal goals, interests and labour market aspirations. They should talk to other students and recent graduates about their experiences, ask about professional development opportunities and insist that their academic program provide statistics on labour market outcomes and career pathways of recently graduated students.

For further information, please contact:

Matt Ross
Research Communications Officer
Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
(416) 212-3797 / 

Susan Bloch-Nevitte
Executive Director, Communications
Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
(416) 212-5242 /  

Stay in the know at
Follow us on Twitter: @HEQCO
Like us on Facebook: