The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences frequently offers an opportunity for reflection on the current state of an academic discipline and prescriptions for the future. The incisiveness of analysis can vary as can the questions asked.

Particularly striking is this vein was a fascinating session hosted by the Canadian Society for the Study of Education which looked at the employment of PhD graduates and considered if those patterns necessitated a re-imagining of doctoral education.

The employment patterns of PhDs was outlined by Daniel Munro, Principal Research Associate at the Conference Board of Canada, based on research and analysis published earlier this year. The results are either sobering or cause for celebration, depending on one’s perspective. Munro noted that while many faculty, students and PhD graduates view the purpose of doctoral studies as training for academic careers, fewer than 20% of PhDs in Canada are employed full-time as university professors. If one also includes those employed as part-time faculty, teaching and research assistants, full- or part-time college instructors, and postdoctoral scholars, then 40% of Canada’s PhDs are employed in postsecondary education sector. But, many of those positions are temporary and insecure, or way-stations to other forms of employment. By contrast, some 60% of PhDs are employed in careers outside of academia—in government, non-government organizations and industry — where they apply their knowledge, training and skills in a variety of endeavors.

So what is the problem, given that doctoral graduates do get jobs, and in fact have lower unemployment and higher labour force participation rates compared to Canadians in general? The concern, we are told, is that graduate students have unrealistic expectations about their prospects for academic employment. And that the nature of doctoral training, geared to anticipated academic employment, is out of step with the labour market destination of the majority of graduates. Moreover, according to employers, doctoral graduates do not have adequate professional skills needed for non-academic careers, making for difficult labour market transitions.

The frame of analysis being used here can be limiting, however. While employability is certainly an important consideration for graduate education, as it is for undergraduate education, it is not the only objective, though this has now become a predominant focus. Even using the employment lens, should the focus be on addressing unrealistic student expectations with caveat emptor cautions, or also on addressing the failures of a fragmented academic labour market that is increasingly unable to provide full-time secure employment to graduates wishing to work in academia?

In terms of re-imagining graduate education to reflect changing employment patterns, we are now witnessing a variety of new approaches to doctoral education, as was noted in the session. But this also raises the issue of the responsibility of employers to provide further training and support for the graduates they hire. While employers have a long history of criticizing what they view as inadequate skills provided by universities, their own record of training and upgrading is abysmal. Should this not be a pressing concern?

Reflecting on the state of the academy, the questions not asked are sometimes more important than ones that are.