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Researcher rethinks the purpose of the PhD


Most PhDs don’t end up as profs, so why not focus on more “real” opportunities?

OTTAWA, May 31, 2015 — An Ottawa researcher says it’s time to rethink the purpose of the PhD. Instead of viewing a doctoral degree as a ticket for entry into academia, he says we should think of it instead as a way of producing advanced researchers—some of whom will end up as university professors.

Daniel Munro is principal research associate for public policy at the Conference Board of Canada. He’s spent a lot of time researching the employment status of PhDs in Canada, and will be sharing his knowledge at two different panels taking place at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

Munro says there are over 200,000 people in Canada with a doctoral degree, and Canadian universities are turning out thousands more every year. In 2011, for example, there were 6,000 new PhDs awarded in Canada. There are also many Canadians earning doctorates abroad, and Canada is recruiting more PhDs through immigration—to the point where roughly half of all PhD degrees in Canada are held by immigrants. Overall, Canada has nearly 50 per cent more people with doctorates today than it did in 2001.

While a doctorate is traditionally thought of as a stepping stone on the way to a career in the academic world, in reality most PhDs don’t become university professors. In fact, says Munro, only about 18% are employed as full-time university professors, and fewer still hold tenured or tenure-track positions. Instead, people with doctorates hold jobs in a variety of areas, from finance to sports to government to sales—where they can draw on their skills as researchers and critical thinkers to improve policy, organizational performance, innovation, and economic and social well-being.

Munro himself has a PhD in political philosophy from MIT. “I don’t write papers on Aristotle (in my job at the Conference Board), but I do use a lot of my research skills, and ways of reading and thinking and writing, and all these things come into my job every day,” he says. “Those of us who are six or seven years out of our programs and who work outside the academy see that we have skills that can benefit the organizations we work for,” he adds. “But that awareness is not found among a good number of the faculty members training PhDs, and among the grad students themselves. So there’s a blindness about what happens to graduates after they finish their PhDs.”

Munro suggests that ‘blindness’ may be due in part to the fact that university professors are the ones who train PhDs, and that PhD programs are set up in a way that resembles an apprenticeship, and doctoral students are expected to model the behaviour of their advisor. He argues that it might be useful, during their education, to expose PhD students to people with doctorates who work outside the academy – to give them a broader perspective on their employment opportunities. Those opportunities are actually good. Munro says the good news is that unemployment levels for people with doctorates are below the Canadian average, and their participation rate in the labour force is higher.

Daniel Munro will be presenting this research on June 1 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “Re-imagining the PhD: New forms and futures for graduate education” and will take place at 3:00 pm at the University of Ottawa campus in the LMX building, room 390.

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About the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress is the largest interdisciplinary conference in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. Now in its 84th year, Congress brings together 70+ academic associations that represent a rich spectrum of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including literature, history, theatre, film studies, education, music, sociology, geography, social work and many others. Congress 2015 is hosted by the University of Ottawa. For more information, visit

About the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences promotes research, learning and an understanding of the contributions made by the humanities and the social sciences towards a free and democratic society. Established in 1940, with a membership now comprising 160+ universities, colleges and scholarly associations, the Federation represents a diverse community of 85,000 researchers and graduate students across Canada. The Federation organizes Canada’s largest academic gathering, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, bringing together more than 8,000 participants each year. For more information, visit

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