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Life after Grad School

As more PhD graduates seek work outside of academia, U of T is creating opportunities for these highly knowledgeable students to develop professional skills

Read the story and then tell us about your own experience after grad school in the comments box below.

Growing up in Quebec, Vincent Nadeau wanted nothing more than to be a scientist. Fascinated by cystic fibrosis research, he embarked on a PhD in biochemistry at U of T. “Like most grad students I had in mind doing research, being a professor,” he says.

Near the end of his seven-year journey, though, Nadeau had a change of heart. He went to a small conference in his field, and found his project wasn’t attracting enough interest. He lost the drive to do research, but had become intrigued by how science is commercialized. So the question arose: Was he going to stay in academia?

For him – and for the majority of the students who’ve recently completed PhDs in Canada – the answer was no.

Nadeau is now happily employed as an analyst with Bloom Burton & Co., an investment bank concentrated in the healthcare and biotech sectors. There, he performs due diligence on public and private companies for prospective investors – a task he’s uniquely suited for, given the analytical, leadership, presentation and interpersonal skills and highly specialized knowledge he picked up along with his PhD.

“It’s a unique kind of training,” he says, noting that many of his colleagues also have PhDs. And given their rising numbers – there are about 210,000 PhD holders in Canada, and 7,000 new ones graduating every year (one in eight of whom are from U of T) – it’s not surprising that PhD holders are employed in industry and many other sectors, including government, health care, education, the arts and social services.

Like students at the bachelor’s or master’s level, PhD candidates complete reports and conduct research; they also teach and manage large projects on their own. It is a long journey, averaging from five to seven years (often with another two or three years spent in a post-doctoral fellowship). But its rewards are many.

First among these is the chance it offers for students to pursue their passion: learning. “People do this degree for personal reasons,” says Suzanne Akbari, director of U of T’s Centre for Medieval Studies and special adviser to the dean of the School of Graduate Studies on graduate program innovation. “Whether they love Old Norse sagas or bench work in the lab, passion is always at the centre of what they’re doing.”

Stephannie Roy agrees. Now a senior projects officer and recruitment co-ordinator at U of T, she earned a sociology-in-education PhD in 2004 – and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It’s a privilege to have that time: to think big thoughts, make a project your own and contribute to knowledge in your field. You meet great people in that process, too – smart people, who are making things happen. Of course,” she laughs wryly, “you don’t have furniture either. So you have to weigh these things out.”

But is a PhD marketable in the world outside of academia? Some recent news reports have suggested that holders of master’s degrees are better off financially. Roy, however, offers a different view. “It’s true that you defer lifetime earnings,” she says. “My father did a PhD and he was an academic; he always joked that if he’d worked in the mill, he’d have earned more money. But he’d also have had to work in the mill. It’s really a question of whether you’re doing what you like to do.”

And in many offices, her own included, having a PhD is advantageous. Among Roy’s administrative colleagues at the university are a historian, an anthropologist and a philosopher. “People with this degree like universities, because they understand the mission and the culture,” she says. They’re also uniquely positioned to perform knowledge translation in the outside world, in order to build bridges with industry and other partners.

Nadeau adds that a PhD is not only a prerequisite for professors, but in some other positions as well; he cites intellectual property lawyers as an example. In some fast-growing areas (such as data analysis, engineering and health care), an advanced degree is also considered highly beneficial.

Having a greater number of workers with advanced degrees is also thought to make countries more competitive. “The evidence suggests that countries producing a lot of PhDs have more innovative economies,” says Locke Rowe, dean of the School of Graduate Studies. A report by the not-for-profit group Mitacs (which is dedicated to fostering partnerships between academia and industry) suggests that Canada – which in 2013 ranked 18th among OECD countries in the percentage of GDP spent on research and development – could improve its performance in this area if it produced more, not fewer, PhD grads.

For individuals with a PhD, though, the transition from university to workplace isn’t always easy. “The number 1 issue we find with our students is the inability to communicate their passion for research to a non-expert,” says Professor Reinhart Reithmeier, a former chair of U of T’s department of biochemistry who is now special adviser to the dean, graduate skills development and engagement, for the School of Graduate Studies.

To remedy that, Reithmeier and lecturer Nana Lee (PhD 2000) started the Graduate Professional Development initiative within biochemistry in 2012. Over the course of six two-and-a-half hour classes and a session about rehearsing presentations, graduate students (including master’s students) learn, among other things, networking, entrepreneurship and resumé-writing skills, and how to summarize their research for a lay audience. They discuss the importance of mentorship and learn from an array of successful alumni speakers. The full-credit course is mandatory now for immunology students, and is being strongly considered in other disciplines within the Faculty of Medicine. “We give the message that as a graduate student, you have to start building your professional network from day one, within academia and outside of it,” Reithmeier says. “PhDs are thought leaders, researchers, innovators, problem solvers. They have the high-level skills and attributes employers are looking for.”

Reithmeier’s course follows in the wake of numerous career-building workshops, non-credit courses and seminars (in areas such as teaching competency, time management and communication) offered by the School of Graduate Studies since 2009, under the Graduate Professional Skills program.

Masha Cemma, who expects to defend her thesis in molecular genetics this summer, has taken many of the school’s offerings. She speaks with particular enthusiasm about the roster of alumni speakers offered in the Professional Development program, which have included a publishing executive, a lawyer and a governmental science adviser. “It’s so inspiring to see people just a few years older than you are, doing what you want to be doing. You say to yourself, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”

Career workshops have also played an important role in Cemma’s PhD journey, since she realized as far back as her second year of undergrad that she might do a PhD and not become a professor. Her particular interest lies in global health, and she used her networking skills to obtain an internship at the World Health Organization. (A new company started by a U of T alum, Insight Data Science, offers fellowships to PhD grads interested in working as data analysts.)

Along with building skills, the School of Graduate Studies is currently helping PhD candidates grapple with some of the psychological difficulties that can arise over the course of degree completion. Akbari says that humanities students, for example, frequently contend with isolation. “If you’re working in the sciences or a lab-based field, you’re probably more likely to have a strong sense of community. You’re physically in a shared space; you’re interacting with people on a constant basis. In the humanities it’s less so, particularly now; how often are people writing and researching from home?” The School of Graduate Studies has sought to deal with this by drawing humanities students together through roundtable workshops, including one that discussed whether experimenting with the “lab model” within the humanities could serve to alleviate students’ sense of isolation.

In order to address other personal concerns, an embedded counsellor is now available at the school to address problems unique to graduate students. As well, trained peer-to-peer help in the management of disputes is now being provided for graduate students through the new Conflict Resolution Centre.

In sum, the PhD degree of 2016 is not only about the acquisition of knowledge, but about how that knowledge can be used. It is a full apprenticeship largely unavailable in the workplace – one that involves not only learning, but personal improvement on every level. The long list of Canadians who’ve earned doctorates at U of T, then gone on to great things outside of academia, attests to its value in the world outside: There are astronauts (Roberta Bondar and Ken Money), theologians (Mary Jo Leddy), and pioneers in human rights work (Dan Hill Sr.) and computing (Calvin “Kelly” Gotlieb). Even an associate producer of the film Ghostbusters – Joe Medjuck – earned a PhD in theatre studies before going Hollywood.

And while it’s a permanent fact that there aren’t nearly enough tenure-track teaching jobs for everyone who might want one, consensus is growing that the PhD can be reconsidered, reimagined and rechampioned in the public imagination. “If you think about what’s essential to the PhD – managing large amounts of information, framing questions, answering them, communicating them – those skills are always going to be useful,” says Akbari. “I think there is cause for optimism. The shifting landscape is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity.”

Read “From PhD to Life” – a great resource for PhD “figuring out life and work beyond the tenure track.”

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