What are PhDs for?

PhDs are for getting jobs as tenure-track professors, of course!  Or at least it might seem that way from recent coverage of a study that appears to be ALMOST out from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).

The Globe & Mail reports on the study results, demonstrating that PhDs really ARE finding tenure track jobs!  One third of the PhDs produced in Ontario appear to have gone on to tenure-track jobs, with half of those jobs at Canadian institutions.  This is presented as a substantially improved outcome relative to past reporting (from the Conference Board of Canada) that less than 20% of Canadian PhD holders have full-time faculty jobs in Canada (see also here).

It’s notable that these reports, despite different methods, seem to be telling us roughly the same thing (half of one third is a little less than 20%).  You can still get a tenure-track job with a Canadian PhD, but there’s no guarantee, and your best offer (or your only offer) might not be in Canada.  Of note, we just began keeping track of our recent Sociology PhD placements at UBC.  The results from these cohorts aren’t fully in yet (we have a lot of postdoctoral placements!), nevertheless I suspect we’re doing better than average.  Still the lessons are broadly similar.  You can get a tenure-track job with a Canadian PhD, only it might not be in Canada.

But are tenure-track jobs the only thing worth getting a PhD for?  When I smugly note “we’re doing better than average,” that’s what I’m implying.  And evidence compiled within a different HEQCO report suggests that 65% of all PhDs (and 86% of Humanities PhDs) “pursued their degree with the intention of becoming a university professor.” (p. 16).  It seems clear, both from these kind of survey results and from anecdotal evidence, that we tend to socialize PhDs to value tenure-track faculty jobs.

If most of those getting their PhDs want a faculty job but aren’t getting one, are we – the keepers of PhD programs – failing them?  If so, how so?  Are we failing them 1. by admitting them?  2. by how we socialize them toward a singular professional goal?  Or 3. by our inability to effectively advocate for an expanded higher education system able to accommodate that goal?  I suppose I’m leaning toward the overlooked middle child of these possible answers.  I’d like to see more PhDs out in the world beyond academia.  So I guess I should set all professional smugness aside and start working harder to publicly celebrate all of those clever PhDs who manage to break free.

Fortunately we have some great examples from UBC, and several of our recent PhDs have gone on to exciting work as Research Scientists, Public Educators, and Directors at Non-Profits.  To you, I say, well done!


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