Since the trend of short-term contracts began in academia in the 1990s and worsened during the Great Recession, there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of academic positions for people with doctoral degrees. Having spent six years on the tenure-track market working in short-term positions before securing the coveted TT, these discussions and media attention have made for interesting reading for me. A recent study illustrates the trend for PhD graduates to find jobs in sectors other than post-secondary institutions, and also illustrates the growing gap between science and engineering disciplines and those in the social science and humanities.
The University of Toronto, regularly ranked as the top university in Canada, recently released its first-ever study of PhD graduates, focusing on those who finished from 2000-2015. Professor Reinhart Reithmeier’s 10,000 PhDs project found that about 60% of the graduates worked in academia and roughly one-third hold tenure-track positions. The percentage of those working in the private sector increased from 13% in 2000 to 23% in 2015. Just 11.6 % of graduates from 2016 found careers in the public sector, which has traditionally been seen as a natural destination for PhDs (and is much more so in Europe, where many work for municipal, regional, and provincial governments).
An interactive tool allows you to explore the data on your own. It reveals other interesting facts, like the increased enrolment in 2005 driven by the perceived need to fill baby boomer retirements (note how flat the humanities and social sciences are here compared to physical and life sciences). This seemed like a good idea at the time, until the Great Recession hit right when this increased cohort was about to hit the job market.
You can view the graduates by gender, immigration status, and field of study. Looking more closely at the employers in each category (e.g. post-secondary institutions, private sector, public sector, charitable organizations, and other) is also eye-opening. For academic employers, U of T was the number one–that is, it hired more of its own graduates than any other academic institution hired. Looking at the private sector employers, the largest group of employers were biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. For public employers, it’s hospitals who employ the most graduates, then government. This illustrates clearly that the options for those in engineering, health, and science degrees, who are considered experts in their field in developing new products and technologies, are far different than for humanities and social science grads. Few private sector employers consider graduates from sociology or urban planning to be experts, or are willing to compensate them for their skills and knowledge to develop new practices or policies. This apparently even holds for public sector employers such as governments. In a recent article claiming that U of T grads are among the most employable in the world, the focus is entirely on those in STEM.
This perception that somehow science and engineering grads are more valuable than those working in social science and humanities begins with marketing to and recruiting undergraduates to funding research to employing graduates of these programs. I just participated in an international call for research proposals with colleagues in Sweden, Norway, Italy, and Germany. The project lead, based in Norway, was astounded to learn that the Canadian funder on this initiative, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), did not consider a proposed project on the role of women in climate change decision making to have an impact on science and engineering. (Note: the grant is meant “to fund research projects that will promote the integration of sex and gender analysis into research at an international level” and “gender dimension in climate behaviour and decision-making” is one of the proposed research topics). I explained to her that in Canada, urban planning is considered a social science or humanities discipline as opposed to a scientific one. The project lead and I used to work together at the University of Amsterdam, where planning was located in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences and therefore was considered a science. But here at Dalhousie, planning is located in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning and therefore falls under the realm of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Applications to NSERC grants from Dalhousie have a 71% success rate; for SSHRC, it’s just 31%. It’s pretty ridiculous that the mere placement of your academic unit, as opposed to the actual topic, research questions, or methods you employ, dictates whether you are a science or a social science/humanity. And that impacts whether your research will be funded or not. And that impacts whether the university considers you to be successful or not, or whether or not employers consider graduates of your field to be experts who deserve to be compensated as such. Is there a reason that a researcher studying the use of a certain chemical in the body’s cells is inherently more valuable in the marketplace than one studying discriminatory hiring practices among immigrants’ employers? At the University of Amsterdam, both would be eligible for grants from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Nederlande Organizatie voor Wetenschaapelijk Onderzoek).
Clearly, when just one-third of PhD graduates from a U of T, a university that regularly ranks as one of the best in the world, find jobs in academia, it’s time to reconsider the value of a PhD. For 12% of graduates, their employment was unknown, which means that Reithmeier’s team couldn’t find them using internet searches of official university and company websites. Having participated in many discussions (both online and in-person) with those for whom academic jobs were not an option, I know that many end up in the no-mans-land that is searching for jobs for which they are overqualified, with organizations that do not understand what research is or what skills they bring to the table. Some rebrand themselves, become consultants, or retrain in other disciplines because they’ve learned that a history, english, or sociology expert is not valued in the market today. This needs to change. It starts right at the beginning with recruitment, continues with systematic change in the way we fund research at universities, and ends with better education for employers on the skills and knowledge of PhD graduates.