Two decades ago, if you sat at a dinner party next to someone with a Ph.D., chances were, those letters made an impact. You’d try to sound your smartest, asking about the person’s field of study, nodding sagely at the Coles Notes version he saved for such occasions. By dessert, you might have run out of $5 words, but you’d have done your best to keep up—a show of respect due to someone with a decade of university education.
These days, a doctorate is as likely to inspire pity as veneration. Universities are cutting back on tenure-track jobs. The federal government is laying off scientists. The economy, meanwhile, is skewing ever harder toward resource extraction, where the demand for highly specialized knowledge is limited. This confluence of forces is starting to show in the numbers: At last count, Ph.D. grads were more likely to be unemployed than master’s degree holders, while those with jobs enjoyed a median income only eight per cent higher than their master’s counterparts, at $65,000 per year. A good many of those were working in less-than-promising circumstances. One in three doctorate holders have jobs that didn’t require a Ph.D., while a 2007 survey of Ph.D.s working at Canadian universities found that only 12 per cent of those under the age of 35 held tenure or tenure-track positions, compared to 35 per cent in 1981.
The result has devalued a once-estimable badge of academic achievement—to the point that some observers worry Canada is becoming a dead zone in the advancement of human knowledge. “We have an intellectual climate where there’s not much respect for research,” says economist Mahmood Iqbal, a visiting professor at Carleton University and author of a 2012 book called No PhDs Please: This is Canada. “In the short and medium term, I don’t see much prospect of most people with Ph.D.s having a good living.” While demand for doctorates remains high in a select few disciplines, primarily engineering and business, prospects are bleak for practically everyone else, Iqbal notes. Just four per cent of those with graduate science degrees, for example, wind up in permanent academic research posts; less than half of one per cent become professors.
For students like 28-year-old Matthew Mazowita, the headwinds have come as a nasty surprise. Five years ago, the University of Alberta wooed him to do his doctorate in theoretical math, flying him from Ottawa to view the campus in Edmonton. Even in such a narrow academic field, Mazowita’s prospects of getting a professorship, or at least a postgraduate grant, seemed decent. Now, as he prepares to hand in the first draft of his dissertation, the largesse has dried up, he says, and so have the jobs. After the Alberta government slashed U of A’s funding in its recent budget by $43 million, department administrators warned graduate students that the sessional teaching positions many use to support themselves may not be there next autumn. “The situation is grim,” says Mazowita. “I’ve taken to using the word ‘dire.’ ”
Alberta’s cuts represent an extreme example of spending restraint seen across the country. Quebec is cutting $124 million in university spending over the next seven years; Nova Scotia has slashed its by three per cent. B.C., New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have all frozen theirs until provincial finances improve, while Manitoba has sliced in half a planned five per cent increase. Yet the schools keep cranking out the doctorates—slightly fewer than 5,000 last year alone.
All of which would be less troubling if the private sector were putting the country’s best brains to work. Alas, Canadian businesses lag far behind other developed countries when it comes to funding research and development where people with highly specialized knowledge might seek jobs. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published last June showed that investment by Canadian businesses in R & D ranked 19th among the 34 OECD countries, at one per cent of national GDP, despite generous federal tax breaks. That sluggishness has a direct impact on Ph.D.s, says Iqbal, who quotes a Canadian friend with a doctorate who sought work in California: “Canada is cold—not just climatically, but also intellectually.”
Not everyone agrees. While tough economic times have been holding down university funding, Ph.D.s are doing relatively well compared to others in the labour market, says Herb O’Heron, director of research and policy analysis for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Their unemployment rate at last count was six per cent—more than one percentage point lower than the national average—and was even lower when only people who earned their doctorates in Canada were counted, he points out (though the most recent statistics date back to the 2006 census, before the economic downturn). “In the bigger picture, this is not a sea change from the past,” he says. “It’s always been extremely competitive to get a tenured position in academe. If it’s harder than it was before, it’s only a wee bit harder.” Ironically, universities need more Ph.D.s than ever: Enrolment reached a record 1.2 million students in 2011, while the institutions are actively recruiting foreign students able to pay a premium in tuition.
Sadly for many doctorate holders, that demand doesn’t translate to job security. To meet the growing demand for professors, universities increasingly rely on sessional lecturers—essentially, Ph.D.s on contract—who toil in hope of winning tenure-track jobs. Instead, many get stuck in a state of chronic underemployment that seems unworthy of the extra five or six years they spent striving for their academic brass ring. “I look back to when I first started my Ph.D., and I think I was incredibly naive,” says Jeffrey Bercuson, a political science Ph.D. who lectures at the University of Toronto. “As of this moment, I don’t know with any meaningful certainty whether I’ll have employment in September. I’m 30 years old and I’m anxious to become a respectable adult.” To that end, he scours job postings at institutions across North America, wondering whether his ticket to security will ever materialize—and whether the three letters that qualify him for it are all they’re cracked up to be.