Maria Giammarco, Science in Society Editor
In 2011, the most recent year Statistics Canada collected national statistics on academic employment, aspiring academics faced a dire situation: just under 20% of PhD graduates in Canada worked as university professors. Given all the information available by now on the mismatch between education level and quality of jobs, there’s nothing too surprising about that.
Some argue that PhD graduates have a difficult time finding jobs that directly connect to their research, making the case that there is little (economic) value in obtaining a PhD. But people choose to enter PhD programs for a myriad of reasons, not only to pursue academic careers. And the reasons students choose to see their degrees through can also evolve over time as they gain experience and refine their aspirations for post-PhD life.
The truth is the non-academic career prospects for PhD grads are promising: many go on to rewarding careers across many employment sectors, both within and outside their areas of expertise. This includes non-academic positions in the post-secondary sector, as well as research and professional roles in government, think tanks, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. In fact, in Canada, PhD grads have the lowest levels of unemployment compared to those with other levels of education, and the majority report high levels of satisfaction with their non-academic jobs. They must be doing something right.
When it comes to the PhD job market, we hear a lot about skills, specifically transferable skills. These range from communication to interpersonal skills and project management to creative problem solving. These kinds of skills make anyone employable and are not exclusive to the academic experience. But arguably the PhD experience can really hone them.
What skills is the job market looking for? There is growing demand in Canada for highly skilled workers with a range of technical and professional skills and competencies that will support us in the current knowledge economy. In fact, in-demand skills of governments, non-profits, and private firms map onto commonly cited transferable skills of PhD grads. These include entrepreneurship, adaptability, communication, analytical skills, creative problem solving, and the ability to work in teams and manage relationships.
How do graduate students gain these skills through their PhD experiences?
- Written and oral communication skills. Through publications, speaking engagements, and teaching experiences, PhDs learn to synthesize complex research materials into accessible knowledge for a range of audiences with varying backgrounds and education levels.
- Interpersonal skills. PhD students often work in research groups and are required to manage relationships and work collaboratively with supervisors, fellow graduate and undergraduate researchers, lab personnel, and even external collaborators. They also convene research meetings, teach concepts and research methods to other students, and may have to manage conflict situations in their workplace.
- Project management. Successfully completing a PhD dissertation requires the ability to coordinate multiple research projects on appropriate timelines, identify and follow through with strategic priorities, adapt to unexpected challenges, and persevere through pressures to produce high quality research deliverables.
- Creative problem solving. PhD students routinely define problems, use rigorous methodologies to answer complex research questions, perform data analysis (quantitative and qualitative), and contextualize specialized research within larger fields of study.
In many ways, PhDs – highly skilled professionals with the potential for a range of transferable skills and the competencies and discipline to learn new ones – truly fit the employability bill.
While these examples apply broadly to graduate work, not all PhD experiences are created equal. The competencies of incoming PhD students and the level of support they require vary. The ability (and willingness) of PhD supervisors to help with, or provide, support for activities outside the core research can also vary, as does the availability of, and access to, non-academic mentors. Plus, employers take issue with the fact that even though PhD students develop transferable skills, this comes at the cost of direct, ‘on the job’ experience, such as collaborating with company stakeholders or strategizing business solutions. But this skills gap is not just a challenge for PhD programs: We’re seeing a lack of professional skills development in all Canadian students, period.
With the right upgrades to PhD programs, maybe PhD graduates can help close this gap. Are there ways to make the most of PhD programs – to shift the academia-first focus of PhD programs and help students carve out their value to the non-academic workforce? Initiatives aimed at developing and enhancing transferable skills do exist. PhD students across Canada can access training resources through university partnerships with career-focused organizations such as Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC), which houses a Graduate Student Engagement Program, and Mitacs, which offers professional development training courses for graduate students.
In some cases, these initiatives are being integrated into PhD programs. For example, professors Nana Lee and Reinhart Reithmeier at the University of Toronto have spearheaded the development of the Graduate Professional Development Program for PhD students in a range of biomedical fields. The program seeks to turn PhDs into “leaders and innovative thinkers” within and outside academia by cultivating transferable skills through coursework, consultations, and workshops.
Traditionally, PhD programs might not be built to produce non-academic employees – that doesn’t mean PhDs can’t become non-academic employees.