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PhD's benefits may not always outweigh cost, Conference Board says

More and more Canadians are getting PhDs every year, but fewer and fewer are finding them worth the effort from a financial point of view, a new report from the Conference Board of Canada suggests.

Less than 1 in 5 PhD students in Canada end up with full professor jobs, report finds

A student looks at a pamphlet at a job fair. A new report from the Conference Board suggests that less than one-fifth of Canadian PhD students end up getting the job they wanted from their degree. (Seokyong Lee/Bloomberg News)

More and more Canadians are getting PhDs every year, but fewer and fewer are finding they get the job they originally wanted from getting the degree, a new report from the Conference Board of Canada says.

According to a report authored by Jessica Edge and Daniel Munro, while Canadians who have PhDs on the whole tend to earn more than those who don't, when the costs of the degree itself is factored in, the "economic returns are modest."

In 2011, the most recent year with authoritative data available, 6,219 Canadians earned a PhD. That's a 68 per cent increase from the number granted less than a decade earlier, 3,723 in 2002.

1 in 5 become profs

Roughly 60 per cent of that cohort expected to go on and become full university professors themselves, the paper found. But that only ended up happening to less than a fifth of the total, or 18.6 per cent. Factoring in those who used their degree to get some other job other than a full professorship in academia increases that number to 40 per cent.

That's still only about two-thirds of the people who enrolled in a PhD program that ended up with anything approaching their original intended job. 

A good number did something else entirely, which may not have required a PhD. "Each year, thousands of students begin PhD studies across Canada with the goal of becoming a university professor," the report says. "But in reality, less than one in five PhD graduates ultimately become university professors."

That doesn't mean it's a complete waste of money, however. Across all disciplines, people with a PhD in Canada in 2007 earned $69,267, on average. Compared to other education levels, that's: 

  • $12,680 more than those with a master's degree.
  • $23,474 more than those with a bachelor's degree.
  • $34,087 more than those with a college degree.
  • $40,510 more than those with a  high school diploma.
  • $46,569 more than those without a high school education.

But there's a lot of people who don't fare anywhere near that well. More than a quarter, or 26 per cent, of those with PhDs in Canada end up in positions with annual salaries under $50,000. "Given the financial investment many graduates have made, as well as the income they forego while studying for five to 10 years," the paper says, "starting salaries in that low range are somewhat discouraging.

"PhD students and graduates may have been expecting higher salaries than those seen here."

The sheer number of PhD graduates that end up working outside academia leads to more problems.

"Employers may view PhDs as overspecialized in some areas, while lacking skills in others," the paper says. "In many cases, employers may see value in the completion of a PhD degree, but may not value the PhD as highly as the five to seven years' work experience that an individual may have gained instead of completing a PhD program."

Ultimately, however, the paper notes that Canada isn't actually churning out that many PhDs on a global level. In 2011, Canada had 208,480 people with a PhD.

That works out to 88 out of every 100,000 Canadians between the ages of 25 and 39 having one. Other developed economies have much higher rates including 215 out of every 100,000 in Switzerland, 193 in Finland, 188 in Germany and 119 in the U.S. 

People with PhDs tend to be much more productive workers, something that benefits the individual and the overall economy as a whole. So the paper shouldn't be taken to be suggesting that PhDs aren't a good thing.

They just aren't a great idea for every individual from a financial perspective

"In general, PhDs fare quite well in the Canadian labour market," the authors conclude. "Employment and earnings outcomes are generally good, and many PhDs are satisfied with their careers, whether they are employed in academic or non-academic careers.

"But there are areas for concern."

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