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Sharp differences in career paths of PhD grads across fields, UBC study finds

UBC’s study delves deeper into differences between fields and reveals how career paths change over time. Graduates in some fields have much better outcomes than in others. For example, it takes science graduates up to 10 years of working as a postdoctoral researcher before they land a tenure-track job.

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A new study released Thursday from the University of British Columbia has found that approximately a third of its doctoral graduates end up working in traditional academic positions as professors, but that there are sharp differences in the career outcomes of graduates across different fields.

About a third of the humanities grads the study surveyed found a tenure-track, research-intensive academic job, but only a fifth of those in engineering chose that path. And while the overall unemployment rate was less than 2 per cent, 7.5 per cent of humanities PhDs reported they were looking for work.

The report is based on the labour-market outcomes of almost 4,000 PhD graduates, from 2005 to 2013.

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Read more: Ontario universities pressed to show value, demand for graduate degrees

"We as a society have put massive amounts of energy and resources into educating graduate students," said Susan Porter, the dean of graduate studies at UBC and vice-provost. "Given that the careers we see now are not what they were many decades ago, are we educating them to be the best they can be in the world? That was an important question to ask," she said.

The study is the latest to examine what kind of jobs PhD holders pursue, part of a national debate about whether Canada's economy is fully capitalizing on the skills and training of advanced degree holders. The number of people with doctoral credentials has jumped over the last decade but tenure-track jobs have not kept pace.

Multiple studies over the past two years have found that a minority of PhDs become professors.

UBC's study delves deeper into differences between fields and reveals how career paths change over time. Graduates in some fields have much better outcomes than in others. For example, it takes science graduates up to 10 years of working as a postdoctoral researcher before they land a tenure-track job.

"It's distressing the age at which some of these people really settle down to a career – that is both for themselves and for what they can contribute during their lifetime," Dr. Porter said.

Such findings resonate at McGill University, home to the nationwide Trace project which has been examining the career outcomes of PhD grads from many Canadian universities with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Part of the project has been the collection and online posting of life stories from graduates themselves.

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"Being able to put a face and a name to the numbers recognizes that everybody's experience is unique [and] has huge value," said Catherine Nygren, an English PhD student who has edited dozens of the stories. "Being able to see what it is like to be a first-generation grad student, what it's like to be a woman studying philosophy rather than a man."

But as she read through the individual stories, Ms. Nygren also noticed that success in the academic job market often depends on good fortune.

"One of the recurring themes has been the idea of luck. Both in getting accepted into a program and then in the job market. Nearly every tenure-track story that I read, they acknowledged the role of luck," she said.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the academic job market, many doctoral graduates quickly turn to careers in the private sector, said Jennifer Polk, the founder of From PhD to Life, a consulting and coaching firm.

"It is so important to have smart, talented, bright people working everywhere," said Dr. Polk, who started the company after graduating with a history PhD from the University of Toronto. "It is not good enough to stick all these people in academia, or in a small segment of the profession," she said. Later this month, Dr. Polk and co-organizer Maren Wood will host an online conference for PhDs to help them find alternatives to faculty positions. "We think of it as crisis intervention," she said.

Rather than wait until graduation, UBC is now trying to change students' career options at the start of their degree. A two-year old initiative, the Public Scholars program allows students who have an idea for applied research to make that part of their dissertation.

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For Jeremy Stone, who is studying how disaster rebuilding can lead to gentrification, the program has allowed him to combine his existing professional career with academic work.

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More

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