PhD studies pay off for most graduates, new study shows

Jump in doctoral graduates over past decade offers opportunity for "brain gain" in Canada's post-secondary sector and beyond.

Grad school might be fear-inducing, given the online proliferation of horror stories of research gone wrong. But for most PhD students at the University of Alberta, the long hours, gruelling revisions and looming deadlines are a launching pad to a meaningful career.

A new labour market outcome study conducted by the U of A tracked 4,365 PhDs graduating over a 12-year period ending in 2017. It found that 56 per cent remained on campuses, another 29 per cent work in the private sector and 12 per cent are in the public sector.

Half are either in tenure track academic positions or in professions like law and engineering. Another 14 per cent are scientists or researchers working outside the post-secondary sector.

The study also found a net "brain gain" of 831 PhDs, thanks largely to international students, nearly two-thirds of which remain in Canada after they graduate.

And despite the fact that the number of students has increased by nearly 50 per cent in the past decade, only one out of five PhD students didn't have a job lined up before they graduated.

"That was a pleasant surprise," said Deborah Burshtyn, interim dean and vice-provost in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research. "And it also shows that there's work to be done."

A tough path

The study is the latest attempt by the U of A to demystify graduate education and assess how well it's preparing PhD students for life in or beyond the ivory tower.

Grad school, it turns out, has a bit of a reputation.

A PhD requires years of personal investment, applying for grants and taking out loans. Research trails can sometimes turn cold, leading to long, lonely hours to find a way back. Getting through it all can take a toll.

Numerous studies link PhD programs with higher rates of mental health problems. In a 2018 study by Harvard researchers, for instance, PhD candidates in eight major economics programs were three times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than the average population.

Burshtyn acknowledged that PhD students are naturally in a "very vulnerable position," but said U of A students should be heartened by their ultimate career prospects.

Twenty-six per cent will land in the tenure track-rates similar to the University of British Columbia and University of Toronto-and the majority find work in their field. For those who don't wind up in their discipline, there's plenty of value a PhD can bring.

"They're not all going to get academic positions," Burshtyn said. "But information is power. It's knowing what the prospects are. And being very clear that this is what it looks like."

Selling the PhD

Eric Loo thinks Canadians don't give the degree its proper due.

The Fort McMurray native received plenty of raised eyebrows when he left the northern town during boom times to go to the U of A, where he eventually earned a PhD in tumour immunology.

"You go do a PhD program, your family is usually like 'why?,'" said Loo. "The funny thing is that in this new knowledge-based economy, the new jobs almost require it. But Canadians are too busy not getting them because there's no social value."

Studies point out that Canada lags behind its global peers in numbers of PhD researchers, who are essential to effective government and strong non-profit sectors. Loo thinks Canadian businesses also fall into the same trap as skeptical parents, not willing to see the upside.

Canadian businesses tend to import technologies developed in the United States and China instead of partnering with post-secondaries in their backyard to create custom solutions. One of the ironies is that the research and development (R&D) they rely on might well come from Canadian-trained researchers working abroad, when it could happen in their own companies.

"We don't have our own Silicon Valley," he said. "We don't have the entrepreneurs and thinkers up here to do the innovation, but we develop all the engineers and thinkers here to do it."

Loo was first sold on the value of a PhD during an undergraduate co-op at an Edmonton biotech firm, when he noticed that all the people in senior positions had PhDs. During his studies, he took advantage of a free individual development plan and got involved with career planning services through the graduate studies faculty. After graduation, he took on a job at a West Edmonton Mall jewelry store to hone his sales skills.

He puts them to use now with Mitacs, a national not-for-profit that connects companies and post-secondary researchers at a variety of member campuses across Canada. He gets to "play the matchmaker service," helping companies find graduate students and post-docs from all kinds of disciplines to develop innovative solutions to their challenges.

Even if Canada is primarily a natural resource economy, U of A PhDs could help diversify the economy and make its traditional sectors stronger.

"All of the data of mine and oil logistics is being developed in the U.S.," Loo said. "Now they're importing that kind of technology here. Why are we not developing it?"

Beyond Plan A

Peter Sabo is a conventional success story in an unconventional field of study.

In 2016, he made the rare leap from a U of A religious studies PhD student to full-time instructor in the faculty. The expert on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible is not yet in a tenure track position, but the door is still wide open.

Looking at his field, Sabo knows he's extremely lucky to have gotten this far. He admits he only fully grappled with what he would do with his PhD until four years had whistled by, along with his grant money. It only really hit him when he organized a panel on the shrinking number of positions for religious studies students across Canada.

"There's a general sense of foreboding about when you're done," Sabo said. "You enjoy what you're doing. You like it. It's just, 'What will I do when I'm done?' That's a pretty universal experience."

Students often fall in love with a field of study but Sabo encourages them to look for opportunities to develop skills like writing and editing. Keeping your eyes open and feet on the ground can go a long way. For those studying religion, the likely tradeoff for actually landing in an academic career is a nomadic lifestyle and a wide range of pay.

Mastery of dead languages and insight into ancient Near Eastern dietary practices might not seem like transferable knowledge outside of the world of research. But Sabo said a PhD in religion-or other humanities degrees-is actually incredibly valuable. He bristles when people talk about Plan B, because life outside of the academy shouldn't be deemed a failure, but an opportunity to make a difference.

"You don't need to get a job in what you actually studied, unlike other disciplines," said Sabo. "This teaches critical thinking, ways to navigate the world, complex multicultural issues. All that you might not get in other degrees."

Burshtyn agrees this isn't given as much credence as publications or experiments. Three years ago, she jumped at the chance to move from her immunology lab to take a turn as vice-dean in graduate studies. Her experiences as a researcher helped in an administrative role, and if she walked off campus tomorrow, she could do so.

"I think I became a much more effective project manager in every sense, even though it wasn't formalized," Burshtyn said. "Building teams around initiatives. Timelines. Budgets. It has all those aspects."

Next steps

When Burshtyn began her PhD in the mid-1990s, government austerity was in full swing and baby boomers occupied the lion's share of the tenure track. While she managed to buck the odds, she never saw it as an all-or-nothing gamble.

The U of A is taking steps to ensure that all PhD students are always thinking about possible next steps. Professional development courses and personal planning are now mandatory at the beginning of every doctoral program.

Burshtyn said the labour market study will complement this ongoing work, pointing to other potential improvements while providing the baseline data to monitor trends down the road.

Nearly three out of every 10 U of A students reported difficulties transitioning to the job market. More attention may be needed to helping PhD students market themselves as they near graduation. But more could also be done to clarify learning outcomes for advanced degrees. It's difficult to create standard expectations for PhDs, since most learning takes place outside of the classroom. But Burshtyn believes that no student should earn a PhD without demonstrating the kind of teamwork essential to virtually all work environments.

She envisions mentorship programs that connect alumni with current students. A PhD may be a difficult trajectory, but with clear expectations, resources and examples of success, it need not be a horror story.

"It's a very big undertaking," she said. "But it's also about trying to ask the best questions, and about having really innovative solutions."