Are Canadian universities preparing PhD’s for non-professoriate careers?

While universities and colleges continue to withhold full time continuing faculty positions in favor of sessional hires, graduating students are facing the realization that they may need to pursue non-teaching careers; despite their dreams of  paying off their student loans with a middle income position. But are they prepared to enter the non-academic or ‘real world’? Have Canadian universities prepared them…given them a recognizable and viable skill set that will match up with market needs and demands? While applying for hundreds of jobs and retooling my resume to highlight the requested skills each and every time, I have come to the realization that it’s extremely difficult to translate my academic toolbox into a recognizable, employable skill set.

Let’s examine one particular skill; managing a project. Doing your PhD from beginning to end could be construed as a project with timelines, budgets and stakeholders, or you could also focus this definition on the actual research project itself. Looking at all the aspects of project management, if you successfully complete your research and stay on budget and within agreed timelines, can you state that you have project management experience on your resume? Can you apply for positions that require project management skills? I would venture to say that if the employer is not asking for a PM certification, you do have some experience that you can add to the resume, but this is only one project and can be dismissed easily.

Why can’t Canadian universities establish a PM certicate program surrounding the PhD? Why go through the steps of gaining a PhD claiming to have used project management, and not gain a PM certificate that speaks volumes to employers? I have experienced interviews where prospective employers belittled my research project, focusing on the topic alone and not the process followed, or the management techniques used. To most employers, the world of PhD research projects are completely foreign. They don’t recognize the skills. Without that PM certificate you might gain an interview as an assistant, or coordinator, but never as a PM; and often assistants or coordinators are required to have a certificate for these junior entry level positions.

The issue of course is the separations of business, arts, humanities and science programs. Project management has long been part of the business program in many universities, and although there are strides being made through interdisciplinary programs, they are not as holistic as they could be. Every program has required courses, so why not make a mandatory PM course part of every PhD program? This argument could be made for matching several other programs with employable skills training as well.  How often has a Fine Arts student completed a PhD, only to realize they don’t know the first thing about marketing their art?  How about the environmental science graduate, specializing in fisheries, who knows nothing about the day to day workings of an office…an environment that inevitably is part of the job. There are many other examples of programs that could include employable skills within their PhD curriculum.

The issues facing PhD’s when searching for jobs outside academia  are numerous, and faculty positions are scarce. Why can’t Canadian universities retool their degree programs to provide graduates with recognizable employable skills? There are never going to be enough faculty or research positions to hire all the PhD’s being graduated from Canadian universities. Faculty are retiring later due to minuscule pensions and a rising cost of living, combined with the health and vitality to encourage them to stay mentally and physically active. Universities can either make the tough financial decision to graduate less PhD’s, or enhance their programs to make them more employable.

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