PhDs: Training for Jobs That Don’t Exist

PhDs: Training for Jobs That Don’t Exist

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By: Tetyana Pekar

In 1900, the University of Toronto (U of T) awarded Canada’s first Doctorate of Philosophy (it was in physics).1In 2001—almost 100 years later—there were 3,660 PhDs given out in Canada, which is an increase of roughly 40% since 1991.1 There were also 27,340 doctoral students—more than double the number in 1981.(1)

In 2001, students in science, engineering and health sciences made up 49.3 percent of all doctoral candidates.(1) Six universities train more than half of all doctoral candidates, and again, unsurprisingly, U of T alone trained almost 16 percent of all doctoral candidates (~4,375, almost double the next largest university) in 2001.1 In 2010, the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) had 504 students, and 231 of them were in the PhD or Direct PhD programs.(2)

Canada produces more and more doctoral students, and the U of T trains more graduate students than any other university in Canada. However, the creation of PhDs has vastly outpaced the creation of jobs that newly minted PhDs typically sought and trained for.

In 2003, the chance of getting a tenure-track professorship position five years after completing a PhD in biomedical sciences was 15%, down from 25% in 1993, according to the National Science Foundation.(3) I don’t think there is any reason to believe the trends are different in Canada.

Of course, not everyone wants a tenure-track position. But if over three quarters of biomedicine PhDs do not end up in tenure or tenure-track positions (and less than half end up in academia), why aren’t universities, especially PhD factories like U of T, doing anything to train PhD graduates to successfully compete in the non-academic job market?

One can argue that the skills biomedical PhDs have are already transferable and well-suited for the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industries. Perhaps that is true, but since 2000 the pharmaceutical industry has cut almost 300,0000 jobs, according to a consulting firm Challenger, Gay & Christmas.(4) However, according to a report NIH, in the US, approximately 30% of biomedicine PhDs work in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.(5) I am unsure of the numbers in Canada.

Still, current doctoral training is aimed at producing more academics, even though only 15% of the trainees end up doing what they trained to do. Imagine if only 15% of law students became practicing lawyers, or 15% of medical students became practicing doctors.

My problem isn’t the lacklustre career chances for anyone who wants to pursue a career in academia. My problem is that faculty members and graduate departments don’t do enough to prepare students to work outside of academia. In fact, they don’t do enough to even educate students about the realities of the job market.

Yes, academics probably do not know a lot about the non-academic job market. But they can create mandatory courses, or provide internship opportunities to help students prepare and successfully compete in the non-academic job market.

Last year, the IMS Student Association (IMSSA) hosted a successful career seminar series. The Life Science Career Development Society (LSCDS) also hosts seminars and workshops for MSc and PhD students aimed at helping students expand the scope of possible job opportunities and build connects.(7) But LSCDS and IMSSA are student-run seminars and workshops. They might aid in networking and expanding the career horizons of current trainees, but they do little to help students get the skills and hands-on experience they need.

Universities are “[producing] a product for which there is no market,” wrote Mark C. Taylor, a professor at Columbia University, in a 2009 Op-Ed in the New York Times.(6)

My point isn’t to debate the career prospects, but to urge faculty members and graduate departments to be upfront with their students. To quote the chair of molecular biology at Brown University, Dr. Susan Gerbi, from an article titled “The Real Science Gap”: “’pyramid paradigm can’t continue forever,’[…] Like any Ponzi scheme, she fears, this one will collapse when it runs out of suckers — a stage that appears to be approaching.”(8)

A job shouldn’t be a guarantee, but there should be reasonable prospects of getting the job one spent half a decade or more training for. And when will we finally stop calling non-academic careers “alternative”? They are the mainstream, not alternatives.


1) Williams, G. Doctoral Education in Canada: 1900 – 2005. Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. 2005 Sept. [Cited 2013 Jan 10]. Available from:
2) Feature. IMS Magazine. 2011 Winter p. 13. [Cited 2013 Jan 14]. Available from:
3) Trivedi B.P. Are we training too many scientists? The Scientist. 2006 Sept 1. [Cited 2013 Jan 12]. Available from:
4) Herper, M. A Decade in Drug Industry Layoffs. Forbes. 2011 April 13. [Cited 2013 Jan 14]. Available from:
5) Working Group. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. National Institute of Health. 2012 June 14. [Cited 2013 Jan 13]. Available from:
6) Taylor, M. C. End the University as We Know It. The New York Times. 2009 April 26. [Cited 2013 Jan 14]. Available from:
7) Life Science Career Development Society [homepage on the Internet]. [Cited 2013 Jan 15]. Available from:
8) Benderly, B. L. The Real Science Gap. Pacific Standard. 2010 June 14. [Cited 2013 Jan 13]. Available from: