Signals Blog

MM1_3085 Last month, The Economist published a very dismal article about PhD holder’s employment prospects entitled “The Disposable Academic”. Ouch.

Nevertheless, the article made its rounds through the Internet and I received the link at least six times. It was very critical of the apparent oversupply of PhD’s, and The Economist summarized what every dissatisfied researcher in training hates: low pay, long hours, and no assurance that good position will be available for them after training. In any other industry, finding and retaining employees would be very difficult until conditions changed.

Almost simultaneously, I was sent a study from Statistics Canada that reported job outcomes of Canadian doctoral graduates; some very interesting statistics lie within for anyone interested in finding out how PhDs fare after graduation, which I will discuss below.

Most academic trainees have been told they’re not considered employees, and I think this partly contributes to the problems of The Disposable Academic. When entering graduate school, everyone makes an implicit commitment that they’ll finish and it’s very difficult to mentally write off the sunk costs of initially signing up. This aversion to loss is a well known cognitive bias that’s part of human nature, and is one reason that current training models appear to flood the market with PhDs and why the problem has become big enough for The Economist to cover. In contrast to other full-time occupations where accumulated experience counts in terms of recognition and remuneration, working towards a PhD is a four to six year trek that’s basically an all-or-nothing deal until it’s over.

The Economist raises one intriguing point – it claims “the interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned.” Simply put: academics have an incentive to keep productive individuals while students have an incentive to leave for a better paying position.

What’s missing in The Disposable Academic is a discussion of the role of government as the primary sponsor of doctoral training. In Canada (and elsewhere), public funding supports individual training and in my view isn’t being spent as well as it could be. In fact, government policies might be contributing to the poor prospects of PhDs in their own industries.

How much is not enough?

Like The Economist, Statistics Canada (StatsCan) really hit the financial realities of a graduate education home. In summary, the median annual income for all PhDs two years after graduation was C$65,000, with life sciences PhDs trailing with a median of C$55,000.

The nice thing about the StatsCanada study is that it shows the earnings breakdown of PhDs who pursued a postdoctoral fellowship and those that didn’t.



Source: Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral
Graduates from Canadian Universities, Statistics Canada

You can clearly see that the decision to postdoc has the greatest impact on life sciences PhDs, where the median postdoctoral fellow earns C$45,000 per year compared to C$72,000 for PhDs who had no postdoctoral intentions. In fact, this C$27,000 disparity was the largest amongst all fields considered! What is it about the life sciences labour market that creates such a wage disparity between industrial positions and postdoctoral fellows?

In part, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research sets the low standard with C$40,000 stipends for the average postdoctoral fellowship. The arguments for this are: “more research can be done with more people, so therefore it’s better to hire more people with the same amount of funds” and “keeping academic salaries low keeps research costs down”. I think this is very shortsighted (Disclaimer: I’m currently a postdoc).

Offering comparatively low salaries keeps talented people away from applying for and staying in positions, and the academic community loses a tremendous amount of people just as they start to become really effective at research. I also know of former graduate students who spent the bare minimum of time in the lab while doing relatively good paying, non-scientific, work in the early evenings and weekends to make ends meet. Wouldn’t we want to keep that mind engaged in research? Secondly, companies and core facilities perform a lot of the work in basic research. Every time a researcher buys reagents or orders services from these sources, public funds are spent at market rates and the cost advantage of low academic wages/fellowships essentially evaporates.

I definitely think trainee salaries should be higher. In theory, the higher stipends should attract more candidates and attract some very intelligent ones that are currently being lost to other fields. As a result, it would also mean fewer Canadian positions available, which is fine as long as there are competitive training positions available internationally.

Finally, before you point out that that this is a little self-serving because I’m a postdoc, consider that I’ll be a taxpayer much, much longer than I’ll be a trainee. The net result to me might mean increased taxes, but the extra expense of having a competitive market for trainees is worth it.

Training Dollars: Part of Canada’s Export Economy

Another important piece of data StatsCan provides is what happens to PhDs that leave Canada after graduation, which is important given that there are huge efforts to develop Canada’s life sciences economy. Canada’s Minister of Industry, the Honourable Tony Clement, also seems to have a good grasp of how important biotech is to the economy as the second most R&D intense industry after Information Technology: “Canadian industry must have access to the R&D and the talent that it needs to enhance its productivity and competitiveness.”

There are government policies designed to attract this kind of talent from foreign sources, but again they may not be the most strategic use of training funds. Government supported Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships are supposed to attract talented candidates to work in Canada, with Vanier Scholarships acting similarly at the graduate level. Though both do support training, they don’t address the long term needs of Canadian research once the funding expires by ignoring a simple fact of human behaviour; the average person eventually likes to return home, where their heart is.

In fact, StatsCan reports that of all Canadian life-sciences doctoral graduates living in the United States, an overwhelming 89% of intend to return to Canada within five years of moving there. This represents a very significant home team advantage for attracting talent! It also implies that, despite Industry Canada’s efforts, almost 9 out of 10 international Banting PDF recipients will return to their country of residence and use the skills acquired here to further academic research and the biotechnology industry elsewhere. The trend of people returning home holds for the majority of fields, according to StatsCan.

Wouldn’t it be better to use this simple human tendency to Canada’s advantage? Fund more Canadian PhDs and Postdoctoral Fellows with international fellowships. Don’t just fund them to survive, send them abroad with funding at a level where they’re thriving and spending every moment learning something new. After sending these trainees abroad to acquire knowledge being used elsewhere, the vast majority will return to Canada with the intention to build something that will contribute to Canada’s research or economy.

So while Canada tries to attract trainees, only to send them away in a few years, the goal of our neighbours was made very clear in Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” If we don’t re-think how we train people, perhaps we’ll receive a thank you card for helping them do just that.


1. “Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral Graduates from Canadian Universities”, Statistics Canada


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Paul Krzyzanowski

Paul is a computational biologist and writer living in Toronto. He's been a contributor to Signals for three years, writing articles for the general public about how biotechnology and biomedical research can be used to solve pressing medical problems. Alongside Paul's experience in computational biology,
 bioinformatics, and molecular genetics, he's interested in how academic research develops into real world, commercial technology, and what's needed for the Canadian biotech industry needs to grow. Paul is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. Prior to joining the OICR, he worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research 
Institute and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa, specializing in computational biology. And finally, Paul earned an H.B.Sc. from the University of Toronto a long time ago. Paul's blog can be read at