By Ben Crase

Although I am not quite halfway through my master’s program, I find myself (and peers) increasingly considering pursuing a PhD program.  Previous decisions about my education have always felt self-evident. Now, the complex interplay of considerations does not provide a clear path to find an answer. According to major media outlets, PhDs programs are in their death knells, described as a waste of time, needing to be fixed, or a bust. While a critical reader can recognize the hyperbole in these portrayals, the research typically inspiring these embellished narratives still seems like the reasonable place to begin any deliberations.

CIHE’s recent roundtable with Dr. Richard Wiggers entitled ‘Overproduction of PhDs? The Attraction, Realities, and Outcomes of Pursuing a Doctorate,’ presented an ideal forum to move beyond the common misconceptions on the topic, and better understand the realities and challenges surrounding the pursuit of a PhD. Having worked as the executive director of research and programs at HECQO for much of the past decade, few policy experts are better informed to explain ‘what the numbers say’ than Wiggers.

Graduate education in Ontario has completed a decade of sizeable expansion. Driven by the need for more “highly qualified personnel” in our knowledge economy, graduate education increased in terms of government research funding, new programs developed and enrolment totals across virtually all disciplines and universities. This blanket approach to graduate education expansion rightfully raises questions about the degree of change in actual labour market demand for many of these graduates.

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Although universities have continued to trumpet the need for additional graduate  education expansion for the knowledge economy, limited data collection regarding employment outcomes, completion rates, and programmatic changes means that many questions about the ultimate consequences of the government’s expansionary initiatives do not have easy answers.

Some studies have begun attempting to provide a deeper understanding of graduate outcomes in Ontario, including the University of Toronto’s self-initiated internal tracking initiative: the 10,000 PhDs Project. Despite unclear employment outcomes trends for all PhD programs, the majority of PhD candidates still aspire to become university faculty. To summarize: there is a clear need for future research in this area to better inform our understanding.

While Wiggers’ overview of existing research and institutional recommendations were insightful, his advice for prospective PhD students was most formative. Having already established himself in a professional career, Wiggers followed his passion to undertake a PhD in History at Georgetown University. Despite being well positioned for faculty positions after graduation, Wiggers’ opted to forgo the faculty path in favour of one that brought him back to Canada as a policy researcher.

His personal experiences as a humanities PhD student epitomized the often under-discussed variability of journeys taken by students that lead them outside of academia. While he is now an Associate Dean at Mohawk College, his pragmatic advice for individuals considering a PhD stemmed from his own experiences, which he happily shared with the audience.

To prospective and current PhD students out there, Wiggers’ advice can be best summarized as follows:

  • When planning to pursue a PhD program, make sure to fully consider the diversity of career options that are available upon graduation. While the market for faculty (especially internationally) may not be as apocalyptic as is sometimes portrayed, one must clearly understand alternative career plans as you approach the program. Conceiving what those plans are from the outset will help you develop strategies to work towards these alternatives alongside your research. Approaching a program with an ‘all or nothing’ attitude is not the best short term or long term strategy.
  • Make sure to capitalize on all of the career development and networking occasions made available. If your program does not do a good job in this regard, be proactive and make your own. Great opportunities typically result from meeting people and building relationships, not searching the web. They also tend to appear at less than ideal moments, but embracing them when they present themselves can be critical to your success.
  • Lastly, do not fall prey to negative messages about job prospects. The decision to pursue a PhD cannot and should not be made based on statistics or potential labour market outcomes. PhD programs have always been about pursuing the truth, and your desire to take on such a challenge must come from within. If frustrated by the job market, remember that life is not always fair and believing that you deserve things, especially when out of your control, will never serve you well.

So after the talk was I any closer to deciding whether to pursue a PhD? My answer: “well it depends,” which coincidentally seems to be the answer to most questions I’ve seen asked in academia.

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