Are Ph.D.s an academic dead zone?

Why grads with a doctorate are more likely to be unemployed than master’s degree holders

Are Ph.D.s an academic dead zone?

Dominic Chan/CP

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.


Are Ph.D.s an academic dead zone?

  1. We don’t all want to be professors. And don’t feel pity for us. As a PhD student, I love my research and am happy and excited to be doing what I do, everyday.

    • I know you say that now and I wish you all the best in your research, but your perspective may change after your defense. If you’re content to spend 4-6 years or so doing exciting research ( for a modest income) and if you want to travel and spend a couple of years as a post-doc you’ll have a blast. But when it comes time to finding stable work that makes good use of your hard-earned knowledge and skills, you may be disappointed. As a PhD graduate in molecular biology with research experience directly applicable to industry I was very fortunate to find a good job that uses my skills, but it still took almost a year of applying for all sorts of positions across the country to get it and the PhD was not a requirement.

      P.S. If you want to do a post-doc, travel internationally. Canada gives post-docs horrible pay and benefits compared to many other countries, plus you get to see the world.

    • I was like you when I did my PhD. You are a student. i will know from you once you have family , kids etc.

  2. ‘Canada is becoming a dead zone in the advancement of human knowledge’

    Boy, that’s for sure.

    That’s because we have Dear Leader…..’Numbnuts’………….. in the PMO

  3. My best friend is a public servant with a PhD. His direct supervisor is a high school graduate with some 1 year college certificate. ’nuff said…

    • Certainly it can happen – I have seen it most often in low quality jobs people don’t like having. The guy with the phd leaves when he gets something better, the guy with the high school education sticks around because he’s he’s likely to find something better, after some time realizes ‘crap, this is my life now”, gets a short college degree and he’s been there long enough to be a good candidate to be promoted to a supervisory position.

    • So what? During the 7-9 years that it took your friend to finally complete their PhD the rest of the workforce is gaining valuable experience on the job. I’m a public servant with a masters degree and 5 years experience. I can tell you with absolute conviction that if I had spent those 5 years doing a PhD instead of networking and gaining experience there’s no way I’d be qualified for my current position.

      • Technically, doing a PhD allows you to spend 4-5 years gaining experience in your field (as a Teaching or Research Assistant, or publishing in journals) and networking (by going to conferences). You should become qualified for a higher position in those 4-5 years. The only problem is the job market.

  4. I managed to find tenure-track employment, but it is definitely a tough slog (I was lucky). About half of a starting PhD cohort finish, and in my field (social sciences… humanities are worse… hard sciences offer more private sector employment, and more post-docs), about half of those find tenure-track employment.

    If you aren’t going to a highly ranked program and/or don’t have a well-connected PhD advisor I’d recommend against pursuing a PhD. And if you go for it, maintain reasonable expectations. Somebody hired at an awful university is probably around the top 25% of job candidates. There are temporary positions (visiting professor is decent, whereas adjuncts are slave labour), but eventually you become damaged goods. And the skills you learn as a PhD are pretty specialized, so it can be hard to pitch them for non-academic jobs (a friend of mine pulled it off, but she’s brilliant).

  5. Academia isn’t the only possible application of a Ph.D. I work with a number of Ph.D.s at a high tech company. The education and research experience obtained in graduate work can be quite an asset. Similarly, that specialized knowledge can often be parlayed into business opportunities. On the other hand, I’ve also seen a number of Ph.D. resumes with little or no practical experience, or even any exposure to a non-academic perspective.

  6. What is left out of the article is the fact that there is no longer mandatory retirement at Universities. Many tenured profs just “keep on keeping on’ well into their upper 70s (many in their early 80s). Yet the system keeps pumping out PhDs like it was the good old days when jobs were plenty (because of retirements). Basically, there is a 10 to 15 year shift in when the profs use to retire and when they do now. So, the net result is a large glut of PhDs looking for jobs in the academic sector.

    • The shift in Canada happened around 2004, so those who were set to retire in massive wave after the late 60s hiring spree are all now in their mid 70s.

      Look to the south — American universities regularly have faculty teaching far into their 80s and 90s, long after they’ve ceased to make any meaningful contribution while still draining to the top salaries. The same problem applies to the inability of universities to innovate or deal with change — the lead administrators are all retired yet still on the job…

  7. “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.”

    Hilarious understatement. In reality, by sheer numbers it’s damn near impossible. Add to that despite insisting on the quality of their PhD programs, Canadian universities are loathe to actually hire Canadian PhDs. With the exception of maybe U of Toronto, the desired candidate is the Canadian who went to a major US school, an Ivy, etc. and wants to come home. And for those who wish to pursue a non-academic career, instead of being viewed as a potential asset by business, they have to overcome the hurdle of being ‘overqualified.’ Mediocrity is often the path to success in this country.

    Canada can’t complain of a brain drain if the bright, hardworking people aren’t allowed a spot at the table in the first place.

  8. Canada is cold intellectually ! I like that , apart from PHD s and their job prospects , It is true that being intellectually bankrupt is a matter of pride in Canada , You love hockey ! love your beer and suffer from inferiority complex in comparison to US ? you are qualified to earn all the respect you need ! the positive term for someone intellectually bankrupt is “down to earth ” I also think that the entire educational establishment is on the brink of some revolution and needs drastic changes , The natural stimulus to learning should be our own curiosity and desire to learn , when you want to learn for the sake of job security ,money and glory , that to me is prostitution of knowledge and it must change.

  9. As it is stated in the book (http://www.free-ebooks.net/ebook/No-PhDs-Please-This-is-Canada) that there are three main reasons for the
    deplorable state of Canada’s PhDs: first, declining academic positions due to
    continued budget cuts at universities, which are main employer.

    Second, governments stand second in employment
    of PhDs, but today’s politicians hate PhDs because they challenge merits of
    most of their political decisions. Harper government is a clear case of purely
    ideology base decisions and loath for facts, science and research.

    Third, private sector is still living in a century old traditional mode of business in primary and resource based products.They still find very lucrative in extracting and selling resources in raw and semi-processed forms, because there is huge international demand for ourresources. About 60% of Canada’s manufacturing and 70% of its top ten exports are resource related — areas of the economy where there is hardly a need for
    PhDs. Even after thirty years of most lucrative R&D related tax incentives
    given by Canadian governments in OECD, Canada’s private sector stands at the
    bottom in research. Canada’s all private sector employs only 4% PhDs as compared
    to 42% employed in the United States.

    Reality is that the future outlook for PhDs in
    Canada is bleak, unless they go overseas (US and Asia for employment).

  10. You can’t change the system, it’s feudal.

  11. Very important and timely topic; balanced coverage and rare piece about economic worth of PhDs in Canada. I was puzzled by Herb O’Heron of AUCC comparison of Canada’s average unemployment rate (which includes about 40% school dropouts and 20% bachelor degree holders) with the highest possible degree of the land, PhDs. Does such comparison make any sense?
    Critical questions are: why unemployment rate of PhDs in Canada is twice the rate of Masters? Why employment earnings of PhDs is very close to Masters even after 6 more years of gruelling schooling? Why 12% of PhDs working those jobs in Canada that need only bachelor degrees? These are statistical facts, not anecdotes.
    At the same time in United States, unemployment rate of PhDs is 4 times (426% precisely) less than college graduates, while PhDs income is about 2.4 times (243% precisely) higher than college graduates.
    One would expect that those sitting at the pedestal of higher learning would be intellectually honest and think deep to find solutions of these challenges.

  12. It’s not all bad!! Don’t let this scare you from entering into a doctoral
    program. As a recent Canadian graduate with a PhD in Materials
    Engineering I had several great offers at industrial research and development
    centers (all in the US), and now live and work in the US.

    I agree that the job market was not ideal back in Canada, however it varies
    depending on your field of study, but that is something that you should always
    plan for before you even begin a program.

    Study hard, write good papers, network at conferences, and don’t be afraid
    to relocate!

    Good luck!

  13. You mean that people actually pursue a PHD because of the job opportunities? Did they do the required research when scoping out the employment potential? Graphed it all out in a software program or simple spreadsheet? This sounds like an exclusive club. Members must wear suit and tie. No lab coats allowed.

  14. I got my PhD in 2007 and finally got a tenure-track job this year. For me it’s worked out. For many of my grad school contemporaries it hasn’t and I know quite a few of them are now regretting the decision to head down this path…. The job market is beyond terrible and graduate programs are producing more PhDs than ever exacerbating the problem. We will be hiring a new person in our department next year and I fully expect to have well over 100 applications – most likely at least 80% of those will be from good, qualified people. Only one of them will get the job… and that will be the last hire in our department for the foreseeable future.

    • Sorry – I just wanted to emphasize that while I’ve worked hard to get where I am, my relative success has also been due to good luck – many of my friends who are still looking for jobs are equally hard-working and well-qualified.

  15. Two things left out that are crucial to this issue. Firstly, universities are churning out young adults with degrees and advanced degrees in liberal arts for which there is no market. How many jobs do you suppose might exist in Canada for someone with an advanced degree in ethnology or linguistics, etc.? Our local college does a thriving business in kinesiology while local manufacturers increasingly fill very good jobs with immigrants. Secondly, the concern over budget cuts is a red herring. Since the 1970’s, tuition costs and college/university budgets have tracked upwards at a rate that far exceeds inflation, but interestingly mirrors the pay increases enjoyed by our publicly funded academics.
    Budget cuts aren’t necessarily a death knell for advanced education. They are simply a request for someone other than taxpayers to shoulder the burden of sacrifice for what is supposedly the common good. It’s not a shared sacrifice nor the common good when only those who live and work in the private sector are making the sacrifices, is it?

    • “Ethnology” isn’t a real discipline… Methinks your ideology is speaking for you rather than evidence-based thinking, precisely the skill a PhD helps people to acquire in a variety of disciplines

      • Yeah, what he said.

  16. Its not just the problem of getting a tenure track position.

    Many tenure track assistant professors are being denied tenure at the end of their 5 year term, no matter how worthy their work. Budgets and grants are being sliced and diced everywhere. No reason needs to be given for denial of tenure at most universities, and no financial liability remains for the university.

    Once denied tenure, it’s even more difficult for the dumped assistant professor to acquire another tenure track position, unless maybe a lesser university might take, say, Harvard’s leavings. So right now, what’s happening is that many brilliant people who think they have made it in tenure track positions are suddenly facing severe career setbacks in the US and Canada, and Europe. It’s a nightmare scenario.

    Will a market recovery reverse this trend? Maybe, but right now it is hard to stay viable with so much competition, and so little funding. We can only hope these folks are smart enough and persistent enough to find alternate jobs or come up with brilliant useful inventions and win some of the dwindling grants

  17. I was hired for a tenure-track professor position in engineering 3 days after I graduated (well, actually I had a contract a few months beforehand). I was 28 at the time. But I assure you that I’m no genius. You just have to have a fruitful PhD, have some cool ideas, sell yourself, and have an advisor who knows how to play the game and write good reference letters. Approximately 50% of my advisor’s PhD graduates (1-2/year) ended up with tenure track positions. This was as a low-mid ranked university, too. I cannot speak for other fields.

    Regardless, my PhD years were among the best in my life. I made pretty decent money ($30-50K/year tax-free), did some consulting on the side, learned a ton and got to choose my own path and schedule, made some top-notch friends, met my partner, played lots of sports, partied (more than in undergrad!), traveled the world (literally, an international trip every 3 months). Again, engineering is probably more generous. But, have you seen the size of SSHRC scholarships? They rival starting professor salaries!

    • I certainly think that this has to do with the private funding made available to engineering programs. 75% of the professors in my department of study are contract.

  18. Oh, what a sad write-up. I agree with Atomic-Walrus below.

    I greatly enjoyed my graduate research (which was basically paid for by the awards and grants I received), and I didn’t get a professor position. The university is not the only place to work. Now I own my own business and am doing very well. PhD after my name proves to be a wonderful marketing device, and I’m very happy about it. PhDs are smart and creative. They can start their own businesses and will be able to earn much more than a professor. I am working in my own field, too, which makes me very happy. Any articles out there about PhDs who are also entrepreneurs?

    • Don’t you think basically you confirm what is said below by Raam from the book. You are doing a job which hardly needs a Phd degree. Most business tycons of the world hold not more than bachelor degree and they are very very successful. …What is the use of Phd if you don’t go for teaching and research. Pure waste of societies resource and your talent (if you think you have).

      • Most business “tycons” go bankrupt… Violeta’s point seems valid — she’s still in business while 80% of new businesses fail.

        PhD may not be required, but evidence-based thinking skills work well in the world.

        • Are you implying that 80% of those businesses who fail, because they do not have Phds? And 20% of those who succeed because they have Phds? And all todays successful running business persons are Phd degree holders…What businesses have to do with PhDs? In general, for a successful business, you need a bachelor degree (unless you are in a very specialized field, but again that is research related), willing to work hard and willing to take risk; and most important a “gut feeling” what would work and what not. And these are beyond the realm of any Phd education.

          • I did not say in the original post that I needed my PhD to work in my field. My point was that my PhD really adds a lot as a marketing tool. It must act as an ultimate recognition. My business grew rapidly in the first few years, and it continues to do well. I’m not a millionaire or anything, but I am living a much more comfortable life than other PhDs in my field who are looking for academic positions or have contract positions at universities.

            I really don’t think I wasted my talent and resources to do my PhD, either. (I worked throughout my years in grad school in the field, too.) I learned a lot, and I contributed to the field as well. Most of all, I had a wonderful time. My curiosity was met with fulfilling results and I keep on working in the field as a specialist in the field. What more can I ask for?

            I also have a feeling that many of us who spent years in grad school learned valuable skills in dealing with business. I did not realize this when my profs treated me like a slave to help with many things like conference organization, etc., but now I can see I learned a lot as a slave to the profs.

          • In many job applications, a PhD may be considered overqualification and many potential employers would just by pass you. PhDs for most business enterprises are also considered too picky, critique oriented, time wasting (because they tend to look at things from various angles that take time, which is the very nature of PhD training). Most companies do not have such luxuries in an instantaneous quick profit making world…In fact, a few of my colleagues under reported their qualifications during application process just to get an interview.

  19. The reality is that Canadians are leaving the country for appropriate employment in nations that have better schools. Canadian universities can produce outstanding PhDs, but the same universities do not hire Canadians and are chronically parochial in their vision. The capabilities of students admitted to first year studies has plunged over the past 15 years and graduates with a BA cannot be meaningfully compared to students who graduated even ten years ago. Our government sees us as a nation of handymen digging holes and driving trucks — we are not meant, in the current thinking, to be on the world stage in any meaningful way nor competing in a global marketplace.

  20. This all depends on the field of enquiry, and the person – I hold a PhD, which I obtained mid-career, and I hold a senior academic post. I love what I do, and know that I could not do it as well as I do if I had not “gone back to school” when I did. But I acknowledge that not all are as lucky as I have been – but I am not lucky because of who I know, but what I make of what I know. The PhD gives natural ability, motivation and a desire to help others an edge. I think that I was good when I got my second masters degree, but I can do exponentially more with my doctorate. It is more than a union card, more than a meal ticket, and the PMO office has it all wrong when they work to dry up support.

  21. Bottom line–if you are going into a PhD to improve your chances of employment, then you are daft. If you are going into a PhD because you want to be in a higher pay bracket, you are a twit. But this is all moot if you are going into your PhD because you are passionate about what you are doing. The chaff will always get filtered out–it’s unfortunate that our higher education has disintegrated into a business, where those putting in the work to gain prestige rather than to pursue the important questions they will explore in their dissertations, and will hopefully continue to explore in their research. The problem isn’t that PhDs are not getting enough jobs. The problem is that people focused on getting jobs are getting PhDs. I am more than happy that these people are not employed because these are not the people who I want to be taught by, or who I want my children to be taught by. This is not a job–it’s a vocation. I poured my heart and soul into my dissertation because I truly care about what I am studying. If I don’t get a job, I will pursue work that allows me to keep working with these problems–which may mean I don’t make much more than 40 grand a year. But that’s enough to live on and be happy. This whole time spent = money earned obsession is ass backwards, and I am tired of it. Dislike this reality, then please don’t do your PhD. Please. For everyone’s sake.

    • Agreed. I am pursuing my PhD (in English), and I know I am doing it simply because I love it. If in the interim you can explain this theory to my parents (who think I am insane), it would be greatly appreciated.

    • I wonder if this post is by someone trolling, a university president, or someone that incredibly naive.

      “The chaff will always get filtered out” – Assumes academia is a meritocracy. It is far from that.

      “the important questions they will explore in their dissertations” = overspecialized research that nobody will read, even other academics.

      The rest of your post is arrogant nonsense that I occasionally read from people desperate to apply some noble purpose to sticking with an exploitative system. The willingness to endure poor pay for the opportunity to continue “working with these problems” is why people stay as sessionals or post-docs. This is the attitude that perpetuates an incredibly prevalent system of what is essentially academic temp work.

      If I want to make a good living, I am not ‘daft’ nor a ‘twit’ for wanting such. Having a PhD shouldn’t disqualify me from that, nor should I use your idiotic sense of higher purpose to gladly accept a lifetime of poor wages, no savings, and little job security. Wanting a PhD and to not be poor are not mutually exclusive goals.

  22. This article is 15 years out of date. Most everything stated in this article has been the case for 15 years. “News” magazine?

  23. We’re all just spending our lives on one thing or another; for me, being in a university is a reprieve from the savage stupidity of the general populace. I look at it as paying for a vacation of sorts. Sure there are requirements, but they are far more easily met than those of a 50-60 hour work week.
    University is the destination, not the means to an end. Score as many degrees as you can, and stay in school till you’re 50. Fuck the work force, if they can’t appreciate you, stay around people who do.

  24. I attended business school in the UK. On my course, I was taught by 8 persons during the entire year, none had a PhD! Interesting to note, 2 didn’t even have master degrees! But it didn’t make a difference whether my consumer behaviour lecturer had a PhD, masters or nothing, when he spent 12 years as VP Marketing for Europe at a global pharmaceutical giant! Time and learning needs are changing…

    • For business learning and teaching, you don’t need a PhD degree. As someone said earlier, for business what you need is “willing to work hard and willing to take risk; and most important a “gut feeling” what would work and what not. And these are beyond the realm of any Phd education.”

      But for all other education (which is basically knowledge seeking, invention and innovation), PhD or similiar learning is critical in todays world.

  25. What our society expects is people directly useful for the economy, administrators, accountants, engineers… People with MA. But just think for a moment at who’s creating the concepts we all have on our lips: merchants or PhDs? I see a big difference between knowledge consumers and knowledge producers. Yet both are needed.

    Besides this point, I believe we have gone too far in letting money and consumption to be the standards to measure individuals or societies. Poetry is not selling, kill poetry. Glorify drug dealers (they make more money than an MBA afterall). Kill the whales. Sell all the oil, minerals, timber… Then what? Is it the society you want?

  26. I don’t know how you folks read this situation, but from what I see; it’s the publishers who have all of the power and the money in this system and those with tenure benefit from it.

    “You can’t change the system; it’s feudal.”

    No, but you could create the system that replaces it. Each and every one of you have taken away knowledge from your respective disciplines. With the advent of the internet, there is no need to rely on a big publisher anymore. Those who are tenured are benefiting from the status-quo too much to want to change it. When there are far more educated people being hurt by the academic system than are benefiting from it, then I presume that they will do everything in their power to create something that replaces that which caused them pain. Or I suppose that you could just lie down and continue to be unemployed, underemployed; the new academic slave labor.

  27. Canadian Universities should offer diversity in their graduate and undergradute programs. Academics should be forced to retire at 65 maximum, like everybody else, and educational institutions must allow the new breed of Phd`s, with extensive reseacrh and specific knowledge base, to have tenure. Student`s today want vibrant and interesting professors. To remain a Top University in Canada means you understand and comply with this reality !

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