Does Canada Need More PhDs?

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A recent article in University Affairs by Brenda Brouwer, President of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and vice-provost and dean of graduate studies at Queen’s University, was entitled

Canada needs more PhDs
But, leveraging that talent requires a strategy and investment.

To be honest, the subtitle says it all about the state of academia in Canada and elsewhere. People with PhDs are referred to as “assets” to be “leveraged”, not as people with career aspirations and hopes. The language of business and economics is all pervading. Dean Brouwer asserts that Canada produces fewer PhDs than other countries. This may well be true, but unfortunately Canada doesn’t use the people with PhDs already in circulation very effectively either. Canadian industry and institutions such as the public services are simply not hiring many people with a PhD. They are not viewed as an asset — rather a sign that the possessor of such a degree is only fit for academia and not for any “real world function”. We can point to a 2008 study by Stats Canada

“19% of graduates stated that they were over-qualified, while 30% reported that a doctoral degree was not required to obtain the job they were in.”

Hardly a picture which inspires confidence in the Dean’s assertion that

“Indeed it is the case that PhD graduates have well-paying and satisfying careers in multiple sectors, including the academy”

If the Dean wants some evidence that the PhD can result in a low paying career and precarious employment, she might consider the pay of post-doctoral researchers at her own University — around $32,000 per annum. Not really the sort of remuneration that fits the “well paying” career tag, is it? She might also like to visit a union meeting for sessional lecturers/contract instructors. She could come to our CUPE 4600 meetings at Carleton. She will certainly meet many people there with PhDs. These people are doing the teaching that tenured faculty at the University don’t want to do or don’t have time for. They are probably being paid little more than the post-doctoral researchers are. I will be lucky to make $36,000 this year, teaching what is, by the Carleton Faculty Association’s own definition, a full teaching load as an instructor. So, we can see what value the Universities in Canada place on people with a PhD. Very little. As an “asset” I am not being “leveraged”, I am being “exploited”. These salaries put people in the bottom quintile of earnings. I am certainly not in the Canadian middle class by most definitions.

So who would benefit from an increase in the number of PhDs in Canada?

Why, it’s the University system that will immediately benefit.

More students.

More tuition fees.

More cheap labour to carry out research for their tenured supervisors.

More people on the hunt of post-doctoral and permanent jobs on or off the tenure track, pushing the supply of desperate people up and preventing any need to increase salaries for those vital contract instructors.

University bean-counters will be rubbing their hands with relish. So much money to gain and to save! The immediate benefits are obvious for the University as an institution, but much less well defined for the student committing to several years of relative poverty, study and hard work. At present, unless a PhD position also leads to a Professional Accreditation as well (such as the Medical Physics programs), then I have to admit that I advise students, not to take up PhD research without some very serious thought. Twenty years ago, I would have said “Yes, of course you should do a PhD”. A colleague of mine, also a contract instructor, remarked today, “I wish I hadn’t done a PhD, but just gone to law school or taken the Public Service Entrance Exam”. That’s a very sad statement, and a real indictment of the present system. If the Canadian University system wants the PhD to have prestige and lead to good jobs, it needs to lead from the front, by making the salaries of PhD holders much better than they are at present.

If Canada is serious about wanting more PhD people in positions of influence, then it has to first do something about the existing pool of qualified labour, those of us already looking for suitable work, never mind creating more PhDs right now. The quality of the Canadian PhD is world-class, the way that Canadian institutions and employers perceive the PhD is not.