Canada pushes abundant PhD graduates towards industry needs

Doctoral glut seen as especially bad in nation that does too little research

January 26, 2021
Canadian Pacific Railway in Banff National Park
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Canada’s universities need to adjust their doctoral degree programmes to help make their swelling surplus of PhD graduates more attractive to industry, a government-chartered assessment has concluded.

The Trudeau administration ordered the review to help policymakers understand their options because Canadian universities keep producing far more PhDs than they can hire as staff, while research expenditures in Canadian industry have also shrunk.

Likely solutions, according to the expert panel formed by the Council of Canadian Academies, centre on getting companies to spend more on research and to better appreciate the value of workers with doctoral degrees.

Universities, meanwhile, should keep adjusting the content of their doctoral degree programmes to include skills in management, teamwork and communication that are valued by companies, the experts say.


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“That has to be, and is part of, the solution,” the panel’s chairman, Elizabeth Cannon, a former University of Calgary president, said of the need to adjust doctoral degree content. “The sense of urgency is there.”

The Council of Canadian Academies formed the 12-member panel, consisting mostly of experts in academia, in early 2019 at the request of the federal ministry, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

Its suggestions are likely to find an even more receptive audience. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn, prime minister Justin Trudeau faces heightened political pressure to prioritise native economic growth over Canada’s past strategies of attracting foreign employers.

The basic challenge is not unique to Canada. Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University, and Robert Weisbuch, former president of Drew University, have just published a book – The New PhD – making similar arguments from their perspective in the US about the need for a more outwardly focused attitude in doctoral training.

The situation in Canada, though, may be especially formidable. Canada had more than 10,500 assistant professors in 2009, but only 8,600 by 2017, the report found. Canadian universities, however, registered a 113 per cent increase in doctoral graduates between 2002 and 2017, it says.

Canada’s companies, meanwhile, have grown even less willing and able to absorb such talent. The nation’s total spending on research and development, as a percentage of the economy, fell from 1.9 in 2009 to 1.6 in 2017, while the average share among all developed nations increased slightly from 2.3 to 2.4.

The solution, therefore, clearly does require incentives to drive more domestic spending on research, Professor Cannon said.

Beyond that, however, both doctoral graduates and companies must get a better sense of how they can help each other, she said. Examples cited by her panel as needing replication and expansion include the Public Scholars Initiative at the University of British Columbia, which helps doctoral students arrange studies and dissertations with partners outside the institution.

A government-funded initiative known as Mitacs does similar work at some 70 universities and 6,000 companies, directing students and postdoctoral researchers into corporate settings.

The need for such additional student experiences has become clear, said Helen Burt, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UBC and former vice-president for research.

“These are high-stakes degrees, especially PhDs, and you always wonder as the supervisor: is this student, at the end of five years, going to find a great job?” Professor Burt said.

While some revisions could entail a shift from traditional notions of a PhD, she said, the corporate world needs the fundamental doctoral skills. “It’s the training of the mind to solve problems and think critically,” she said.

Sometimes, Professor Cannon said, the benefit of on-the-job training is as simple as giving companies a first-hand look at how a PhD-educated worker can help them. “The light goes on, so to speak, on the value that they can create,” she said.

Only about 25 per cent of Canada’s PhD graduates move into a tenure-track academic position, Professor Cannon said. In many cases, she said, the graduates also need to be persuaded that a career outside academia is not a wasted use of a doctoral degree.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

PhD candidates is the workforce that drives the basic research at the Universities; high intellectual quality, dedicated and easily renewed. Some schemes with "industrial PhDs" are in operation. Still, industrial employment is a 2nd choice after PhD. In Sweden if you are looking for a industrial career, it is better with a technology subject master that you complement with some kind of MBA.
This glut of PhD graduates is also a phenomenon in other countries with fewer postdoc positions, e.g. Denmark. Globally, postdocs will leave the university in search of better jobs, often because their pay and conditions are so poor in the university sector, where they move from one short term contract to another. They can gravitate to higher salaried postdoc positions in industries such as pharmaceutical or medical device companies. However, due to work pressures, industrial secrecy or safeguarding intellectual property, this often results in fewer journal publications. In essence, they are closing the door to being employable in the university sector where the number and quality of journal publications are predictors for success in securing a job and gaining promotion. It also means while research units within universities of nursing are often in competition with industry for the best minds, they cannot match the attractive salaries or benefits. Accepting this, career advice on the benefits and drawbacks of working in industry should improve for postdocs. I doubt the best people to give such advice are academics, as most of them have never worked outside the academy.

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