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Inside and Outside the Academy: Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers

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Each year, thousands of students begin PhD studies across Canada with the goal of becoming a university professor. But, in reality, fewer than 20 per cent of PhD graduates ultimately become professors. Instead, the majority of Canada’s PhDs go on to a diverse range of rewarding careers outside academia.

This report examines the employment opportunities and outcomes of PhD holders. It characterizes the challenges some PhD graduates face when transitioning to careers beyond academia, as well as the state of demand for PhDs among Canada’s employers. The valuable contributions PhDs make in a wide range of careers are highlighted. The report examines the status of professional skills development for PhD students and presents innovative examples of professional development initiatives in Canada and peer countries.

Report Highlights

  • Fewer than one in five PhD graduates are employed as full-time university professors, with the majority working outside of academia (e.g., in industry, government, or not-for-profit organizations).
  • PhD graduates ultimately fare well in the labour market, but often face challenging transitions to careers outside academia.
  • Canadian universities have implemented a wide range of graduate professional skills development initiatives to ease career transitions for PhDs. The most effective approaches combine general skills development workshops, and classes or online resources with some personalized feedback or coaching. PhD students can also benefit from experiential learning opportunities.

Most PhD graduates go on to rewarding, well-paying careers, but the orientation of PhD programs toward academic employment—and the challenges associated with pursuing a non-academic career—make transitions to careers outside PSE difficult for some PhD graduates. Many PhD graduates have limited awareness of non-academic careers, and may have difficulty articulating the value of the skills gained through PhD studies to non-academic employers. The challenges faced by PhDs transitioning to non-academic jobs can be exacerbated by limited employer awareness or misperceptions about the potential value of PhD hires.

To ease career transitions, PhD students require information about the realities of the current job market and common career paths outside academia. Many PhD students need assistance developing the skills and professional networks needed to transition out of academia, and translating the skills they have gained in their PhD studies into language that appeals to non-academic employers. They may also require information on creating resumés and cover letters for a non-academic audience, and assistance preparing for interviews and negotiating job offers.

Universities across Canada and in peer countries have implemented a wide range of graduate professional skills development initiatives to ease career transitions for PhDs. The report examines professional skills development initiatives in three broad categories:

  1. Supplementary initiatives: Voluntary workshops, seminars, online resources, etc. that are offered in addition to PhD programs.
  2. Immersive initiatives: Voluntary programs that allow students to undertake immersive, experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, to develop and apply skills in a non-academic environment.
  3. Transformative initiatives: Initiatives or proposals to restructure PhD programs to include integrated professional development training.

Recommendations

The report outlines eight strategies to improve PhD career outcomes:

  • Collect and distribute information about the full range of PhD career pathways.
  • Conduct additional research on PhD career pathways.
  • Consider career outcomes before increasing enrolment in PhD programs or introducing new programs.
  • Create comprehensive professional development initiatives for students.
  • Develop PhD alumni networks.
  • Increase opportunities for experiential learning.
  • Promote the value of PhDs to employers.

Impact

Since its release, Inside and Outside the Academy: Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers has made tangible impacts on policy, practice, and scholarship. It was cited in a document informing Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, as well as the final report of the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science—whose calls for substantial changes in Canadian science and advanced research helped shape research funding allocations in the 2018 Federal Budget.

Inside and Outside the Academy has also been referenced in publications on graduate professional development. In 2016, it was featured in the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations’ Journal of Higher Education and in the Mitacs report Professional Skills Training: An Essential Complement to Research Excellence.

For media coverage of this research, see:

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