National Post: Are there too many PhDs? Turns out, maybe not: A look at where PhDs end up after leaving the Ivory Tower

Daniel Munro is a doctor of political philosophy from MIT, but says he’s “almost” never asked to write a report on Aristotle for work. That’s because, like 80 to 90 per cent of PhDs in Canada, Munro works outside academia.

There are 208,480 PhDs in Canada with more than 6,000 joining the ranks of “doctor” each year. Based on the conventional view that doctorate programs are meant to train students for the breezy life of a tenured prof — but with only 20 per cent achieving that goal — thousands of PhDs are left untrained for post-grad professional life. Are they left unfulfilled and unhappy in jobs which are wasting their skills?

“If the purpose of a PhD is to train people for academia, then we produce way too many,” said Munro, 42, a researcher with The Conference Board of Canada.

“By contrast, if you think the purpose of a PhD is to produce advanced researchers, then, well, maybe we don’t produce too many. Maybe we produce just the right amount.”

The real problem, Munro said, is that PhDs are ill prepared for life outside academia. “They’ve been in university so long — speaking to other academics — they don’t always know how to articulate the skills and knowledge they have in a way people outside universities can understand.”

This week, Munro will discuss his findings about the job market for PhDs at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education conference held in conjunction with the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

He found PhDs who studied humanities and business and administration have the highest rates of landing academic positions, with about 30 per cent of students in those fields becoming professors.

Those with the best luck finding jobs in their specialized fields tend to be trained as engineers or in the health sector, with employment rates of 44 and 63 per cent respectively. Meanwhile, only 20 per cent of doctorates of humanities manage to find work outside academia related to their field of study.

Munro suggested another barrier to finding relevant work is employers’ reluctance to hire PhDs. “There’s a long standing misperception that they’re eggheads who don’t know how to do anything outside of a lab, which I think is absolutely untrue. Well, I hope it’s untrue. I’m one of these people.”

With the vast majority of PhDs working outside academia, there are now initiatives aimed at preparing both students and employers for PhDs entering the work force. The University of Toronto biochemistry department offers a professional development course geared towards teaching students how to network, write a cover letter and interview for non-academic jobs.

And for the past 15 years, Mitacs, a non-profit company, has acted as a liaison between businesses and PhD students who, over the course of three to 12 month internships, develop useful programs for the company. Employers are exposed to working with PhDs “and students get that exposure to basic things, like what is it like to show up to work at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning,” said Munro.

But there does seem to be a premium on having a PhD. Employment rates for PhDs is roughly 10 per cent higher than the general Canadian population. Doctorates also earn an average 34 per cent more money than employees with a bachelor degree, and 58 per cent more than those with no postsecondary education.

“But are they employed in jobs in which they actually use their skills and in which they’re happy?” said Munro, whose dissertation was in the broad field of ethics and democratic theory. “I don’t know.”

Looking at his own experience, Munro said that despite never writing 500-page treatises on ancient philosophers, he’s happy to have landed outside academia — partly because of limited opportunities, and partly by choice. “I’m still a researcher, thinker and a writer,” he said, three interests he once thought he’d fulfil as a professor. “I just pursue it on a different platform.”

By: Catherine McIntyre