The doctor is in…industry

Calgary, Alberta — One year after the University of British Columbia released a report indicating only one in three Canadian doctoral graduates end up in traditional academic positions, a growing number of PhDs in Alberta are finding fulfilling careers in industry — including unexpected businesses.

“Statistics show roughly 75 per cent of PhDs do not land jobs in academia, leading to national debate as to whether we are fully capitalizing on the skills of our country’s brightest minds,” said Alejandro Adem, CEO and Scientific Director at Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that partners companies, government and academia to promote Canadian research and training.

“In reality, the expertise required to obtain a doctoral degree is easily transferred to multiple career pathways and we’re starting to see PhDs show up in a variety of industries, some of them surprising,” said Adem.

Canadian universities produce roughly 6,000 PhD graduates each year. The number of PhDs and postdoctoral researchers accepting roles in the private sector after participating in a Mitacs internship grew 13 per cent nationally from 2013 to 2016, and approximately one out of five took positions with their industry partner. Ali Zareian, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Calgary, is one of them.

After working as an intern at Calgary-based Zephyr Sleep Technologies, a producer of leading-edge devices to manage and treat sleep disorders, Zareian was offered a full-time position as a project manager within the company’s research and development team.  

“I don’t have a background in bioengineering but I do know how to apply my skills to learn about new technologies and how they can help to evolve our product line,” said Zareian, who says he quickly realized his specialization in fluid dynamics and instrumentation was easily transferrable to the respiratory system of a patient.

In his full-time role, Zareian continues to study new fields, most recently acquiring skills in machine learning and data science. He believes his advanced education prepared him for his career by giving him the mindset of a problem-solver.

“I thoroughly understand science basics, but that doesn’t mean I need to use detailed equations every time I approach a task,” he said. “I’ve found a way to transfer my skills to a business environment.”

Hiring a PhD graduate wasn’t on the company’s radar, says co-founder and director of Technology Sabina Bruehlmann. Instead, they were looking for a sound expert who could help them solve a complex problem related to ongoing product development and an intern was an affordable option.

“Mitacs connected us to a student who could draw on his professor’s expertise to answer our research question and in return, he was exposed to our company,” said Bruehlmann. “The relationship blossomed from there.”

Edmonton-based Durabuilt Windows and Doors is another example of an Alberta company benefitting from doctoral expertise. After hiring Yanan Xie, a Mechanical Engineering PhD, as a post doctoral intern to perform in-depth gap analysis as it transitioned from one enterprise software platform to another, the company created a full-time role for Xie as team lead, Software Development. Xie firmly believes the opportunity only came because he had the chance to demonstrate his value hands on.

“They’re starting to know my work and to see where I add value to the business,” said Xie, who is constantly looking for ways to improve efficiency and enhance current processes.

Prior to accepting the internship with Durabuilt, Xie said he was frustrated by the fact that business tends to glance over a PhD. In fact, several human resource professionals told him to expect his resume to “land in the garbage.”

“I do believe we can do more to create opportunities for PhDs to contribute to business,” he said.  

Zephyr Sleep Technologies’ Bruehlmann believes doctoral skills are adaptable to any business environment and views internships as a vital tool to make it happen, one she wishes she had known about when pursuing her own doctorate in biomedical engineering at the University of Calgary.

At the time, Bruehlmann’s research focus was on back pain. She didn’t plan to help launch a start-up business related to managing sleep disorders. In fact, she recalls a lot of frustration spent trying to figure out a career path before she connected with her co-founders.

“It can be scary for PhD graduates. You’ve devoted six years and at the end, there’s no specific private sector role you can apply for. There are no boxes to check on a form to show what you do,” said Bruehlmann. “Exposure through an internship position helps both the company and the graduate see the true potential of the intern’s doctoral training.”

Quick Facts:

  • Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 19 years. Mitacs is funded by the federal and provincial governments as well as university and industry partners.
  • Mitacs internships connect companies and organizations with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who apply their specialized expertise to research challenges.
  • Working with more than 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada. Open to all disciplines and all industry sectors, projects can span a wide range of areas, including manufacturing, business processes, IT, social sciences, design and more.