by Monica Munaretto

As a doctoral student, I am frequently asked about my plans after graduation. With over a decade of teaching experience at the post-secondary level, most people assume that I am heading for the professoriate.  When asked in casual conversations, I always smile and say, “you know, it is a funny thing that you’ve asked…” and go on to explain that I am studying the experiences of doctoral students who will not end up in careers as university professors.

People are often surprised when I tell them that these “non-professors” are in the vast majority and not everyone in graduate school intends to become a professor. The reality is that not only “outsiders” would find this surprising; members of our academic community either do not know or fail to acknowledge that this is truly the case. Perhaps as many as 70-80% of our PhD students will not be professors in Canada.

In 2016, I conducted an exploratory study looking at what universities are currently doing and how they can better prepare doctoral students for careers outside academia. I found that students are concerned about their options, unclear about how to go about strategizing for career searches, and many continue to be afraid of negative reactions from their advisors and supervisors if they proactively search for jobs outside academia. Many students are still planning to get that tenure stream appointment, and anything else will be an afterthought.

Preparing for Diverse Careers

Traditionally, doctoral students have been trained through their studies for academic careers, but the shrinking professoriate and fewer full-time jobs in academia mean doctoral students need to prepare for diverse career pathways. It is common to call these careers “alternative” careers, but the term seems to imply that the primary career destination of doctoral students is that of a tenured professor.

The statistics say otherwise.  A few informative studies have been released on the subject in the past few years by HEQCO and the Conference Board of Canada, and their research suggests that the number of PhDs in Canada who will end up in tenure-track faculty positions is somewhere around 20-30%.  Disparity in the findings is not surprising since tracking the career trajectories of PhD holders is a complicated task, especially when so many PhDs leave Canada for opportunities elsewhere.

Daniel Munro, Where Are Canada’s PhDs Employed?

I took a closer look at what is being done at three Ontario universities to support doctoral students in their career search, by determining who is involved in service provision and what activities are occurring on campus. Through interviews with graduate program administrators, members of graduate student governments, and a number of career counsellors, I learned valuable information about how these university communities are supporting graduate students in career preparation.

While each campus had services and supports available, some had cohesive campus-wide networks of collaborators and others were providing support in a more ad hoc manner.

My interviewees believe that the networks developed during a student’s time in a doctoral program were integral to their career success, regardless of what career they planned to enter. Exploring the social networks of doctoral students provides insight into how to improve doctoral student preparedness for careers outside the professoriate. The suggestions for whom to include in the network were not unexpected: common answers included professors, alumni, other grad students, and potential employers. Graduate students’ network need to extend off campus.

Informants spoke about one influential person in the doctoral student’s life as having the strongest, potentially negative, impact on the well-being of the student: the doctoral student’s supervisor. Several informants shared stories of graduate students seeking services on campus, such as seminars on life outside academia or one-on-one career advising, asking for confirmation that their supervisor would never know about their attendance. Words like “shame” and “fear” were used when discussing the doctoral student experience for those seeking careers outside of the professoriate.

Ways Forward

A perceived stigma associated with achieving a doctoral degree and not heading into a career as a professor remains.  Despite the low odds of securing a tenure track position, many of those with the greatest influence on Canadian doctoral students appear to gently (or not so gently) direct our students towards this unlikely career path. Clearly, this needs to change.

With more information about the changing professoriate and further exploration of doctoral student career pathways, we may be on our way towards improving awareness about a PhD’s career options. Supporting students in their career search needs to be a priority for our universities and changing attitudes will take time.

Maybe one change we can all adopt is to refrain from calling every other career choice “alternate,” and discuss them for what they really are: the destination of the majority of our PhD graduates.