Shattering the Silos: Bridging the PhD Employment Gap

In a 1992 speech, technology entrepreneur Richard Tirendi told his audience that “if you’re the smartest one in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Fantastic advice for the business world, but what happens when the room you are talking about is filled with PhDs? They are demonstrably smart, the intellectual elite and experts in many fields—except, perhaps, the topic they are often discussing these days: career preparation for graduate students. This exact point is where the conversation goes awry.

Academics across disciplines know there is an employment “problem,” but the topic is discussed behind closed doors and all too often, the very people who are left to implement institutional plans–the career service professionals–are not invited to the table.

The silo effect created by this behaviour has very real implications. Consider the recent study published by SSHRC in December 2013. The Executive Summary on page 1 points to serious problems in the way we conceive of acceptable careers for PhDs. The authors state “that there is a systemic impossibility of achieving anything close to reasonable rates of permanent academic employment for humanities PhDs” and conclude that the best solution lies in “reforming doctoral training so that it leads to a multiplicity of career paths instead of only one.” The passion and research behind the report is admirable, but the logic is flawed. A quick Boolean search for history PhDs on LinkedIn reveals dozens of interesting and diverse career outcomes such as policy analysts, government researchers, K-12 teachers, curriculum designers, curators, program managers, directors of historical sites and museums, and even senior C-suite leaders in the corporate world. All of those professionals completed traditional doctoral programs in the humanities. So if the problem isn’t caused by academic training, then why are PhDs encountering such difficulty in securing satisfying careers?

The problem is threefold: attitude, employability, and job searching skills. Historically, universities and governments have measured the success of doctoral programs by the number of academic appointments graduates receive. If that is the yardstick, then we are doomed to failure, especially given the employment conditions outlined by David Helfand in his article on part-time faculty. Panelists at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences this spring suggested that careers outside of academia should be valued equally with tenure track aspirations, and should not be considered a Plan B.

This is a step in the right direction. Faculty members need to embrace this attitude because they spend the most time with graduate students and can provide a clear point of referral to existing training programs and to campus partners who assist students with employment preparation. Supervisors can, and should, assist their students with academic applications, but they need to be equally open to the majority of careers that lie outside of our hallowed halls. Otherwise academia will effectively be perpetuating a caste system for doctoral students that benefits no one.

The second part of the problem, employability, relates to whether or not degree holders are ready for employment. Research and surveys from employers over the last five years suggests that employment readiness is less than satisfactory. This does not mean that students are performing below par in subject area expertise, but rather they are missing core skills that are necessary in the workplace. With anticipated retirement and turnover rates up to 20% through 2018, including attrition in management and leadership roles, employers participating in the Canadian Council of Chief Executives’ survey indicated that they prefer to hire students who have completed co-op placements or practicum not because they have work experience, but because they have demonstrated those core workplace skills such as relationship-building, communication, leadership, technology, problem solving, analysis and project management. Universities can greatly increase the employability of their students by incorporating applied activities into the curriculum, encouraging and supporting participation in Mitacs workshops, internships and postdoctoral fellowships, developing relationships with employers, and by partnering with existing departments on campus that provide opportunities for undergraduates and alumni to develop their workplace readiness.

The final piece of the puzzle is often the first place that institutions look: job searching. Most institutions have at least one career office on campus, but those departments are focused on building relationships with employers for recruitment purposes, and serving the needs of the thousands of undergraduates. Graduate students, with their additional credentials, specialized knowledge and skills, are lost in the shuffle with few universities dedicating staff to assist with their transition to employment. Job searching, however, is the end game. While students should engage in career exploration, job shadowing, skill building and networking long before they begin applying for positions, it usually becomes a priority as convocation looms. In answer to the needs of graduate students, the Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills launched this fall for students in Ontario, which provides career and job search assistance via 18 online, self-paced modules, with plans to continue expanding. This type of program has the potential to be helpful to graduate students, but only if universities build on top of the basic resources offered.

PhDs generally do not know how to search effectively for positions, and need to have trained career professionals who can assist them in this process. Knowledge is not enough.

In my professional experience, I can confidently say that PhDs generally do not know how to search effectively for positions, and need to have trained career professionals who can assist them in this process. Knowledge is not enough. They read blogs, news articles, and resources like MyGradSkills, but in this area they need access to the same resources as undergraduates—someone to acknowledge their situation and guide them through the search process. Governments and universities have invested millions of dollars training doctoral students. If we want to ensure successful employment outcomes, we need to invest in knowledgeable staff and build bridges between faculty and those responsible for the professional development of graduate students. Universities possess the resources to complete the training, and have existing partnerships with employers. Now it is a matter of breaking down the silos, and working together to reach the common goal.

Catherine Maybrey is a career development practitioner with over 10 years' experience specializing in higher education, and the owner of CM Coaching Services.

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