Response to PhD ‘overproduction’ article at UA/AU

This is a response to PhD ‘overproduction’ is not new and faculty retirements won’t solve it.  An article posted at University Affairs last week.

Tenure success rates
Retirements were never going to solve the problem, and it’s never been about every PhD student landing a tenure job. Surveys of PhD graduates as far back as the 1960s put achievement of tenure appointments between 60-70%. Prior to that there weren’t any statistics.

These values are all from American organisations. Canada has been completely disinterested in this kind of information. It seems only certain Canadian medical associations track employment values regularly. That’s why we can find physician employment rates out medical school in every geography in Canada, but you can only find anecdotes about how students from Canadian PhD programs perform. And just like gamblers talking about their winnings at the Casino;  success rates out of graduate programs are more often polished representations of the truth – glossing over many students that either dropped out, switched careers entirely, are stuck as sessionals, or who are toiling away in an seemingly endless cycle of postdoctoral fellowships.

The reason PhD employment has become a front and center issue recently is because the tenure success rates of PhD grads is about 8-9℅ now – as determined by extrapolating from those American surveys. While it may have been be easy to ignore 30-40% of people that quietly slide in to other work capacities in the 60s and 70s – and who I imagine were hardly complaining, seeing as their compensation rates rewarded their advanced credentials -, it’s impossible to ignore these issues when the rates are >90% and compensation rarely matches the credentials.

Students know more now than ever: the old sell tactics won’t work

While the stream of eager, low cost, enthusiastic labour may still trickle today for graduate programs, it won’t be long before most if not all undergraduates scoff at the idea of graduate research.

For example; when I was in high school I had no idea what a sessional lecturer was – they barely existed. I’ve had conversations with my students and they all knew what sessionals are. They also knew about the horrible compensation sessionals receive, and the total lack of job security  despite these individuals having PhDs and a decade of work experience. My students also knew about postdocs, their compensation and the job prospects. This conversation came up when my students asked me about how I came to teach at their school.  These are 17 years old and they have absolutely no any interest in pursuing academic research despite being incredibly talented students who love science.

Just to be clear; I make it a point not to speak poorly about any career path in my classes. It has been through their own independent research that they’ve come across this information. They’re all quite well off and their parents are all highly educated who encourage them to critically evaluate their futures.  These students know, from their own personal interest in their professional futures that career paths involving academic research aren’t paying off unless that’s the only thing you can see yourself being happy doing.

So when graduate supervisors are trying to sell the benefits of the programs to prospective students, appealing to the ‘knowledge based economy’ wont cut it.

The industry is going to have to start collecting data to recover credibility

Graduate programs are going to have to show empirical data reporting competitive employment rates if they want to compete for talented students and not just sign up individuals who are putting off adulthood. These results are going to have to involve demonstrating that graduates are properly trained for employment after a 6 year PhD. Not after a 6 year PhD, followed up by a 6 month unpaid internship or more education at a cost – because that’s what the anecdotes gloss over.

Why are you going to do a 6 year PhD if you’re going to have to retrain anyway? Just skip the PhD, and go immediately in to the internship or the educational program that’s actually going to train you for employment success.  In the 6 years you have saved you would have developed a vast professional network, and skills that are directly applicable to the specific career – not to mention the vastly improved level of compensation and a sensation that you’re actually participating as an adult.

A possible solution – it’s going to be painful

Seeing as more than 90% of PhDs are going in to areas of work that are other than academics, it only makes sense that PhD programs train individuals for non-academic activities. This means less focus on purely lab activities – which is the anti-thesis of STEM PhD programs today. Less research focus also goes against the way the granting system operates, how professors are professionally evaluated, and thus how students are themselves motivated to perform and develop.

We can’t keep talking about the problems in graduate level training as if it’s a singular problem, and that somehow retirements will contribute to the solution in any meaningful way. What we have been observing for over a decade is a symptom of how academic institutions and supervisors are financially and professionally rewarded.  The reward system needs to change to incentivize training students in ways that better reflect what the employment market is demanding.

Training 100% of the students to perform functions that less than 10% will ever engage in makes no sense – and ask any new professor if they felt prepared for running their first lab.  That alone will give you an idea of how well the system is working.


Note: Nature improperly cited the original survey source.  It will take time to dig it up – I last accessed the survey close to 2 years ago, online.  I’ll update this citation as soon as I dig it up.


About dylanlevac

I'm a recovering academic, who is transitioning out of research and pursuing opportunities in policy roles regulating plant biotechnology products.
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