Report offers insights on how universities can help as grad students face job market

A comprehensive report released Tuesday offers new insights into the worries of graduate students and how universities can better help them find meaningful work.

The report, titled “Beyond Labs and Libraries: Career Pathways for Doctoral Students”, comes at a time when more and more students are pursuing graduate studies – generating potentially significant benefits to the economy – with fewer academic positions available.

In short, the once-standard path to academia has changed dramatically, forcing universities to adapt.

For the study, researchers from McMaster University, York University and Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that offers research and training programs for academics that connect them with industry, questioned 12 focus groups representing students from a broad range of disciplines, each at a different stage of their academic path.

During confidential sessions, participants voiced concerns about the job market, funding cuts, high concentrations of graduate students within the Greater Toronto Area, the perception among potential employers that PhDs are overqualified, and the availability of career guidance at their respective institutions, among other perceived problems.

bcrow Barbara Crow

But while there are challenges facing students, universities recognize the changing landscape and are implementing new programs to prepare them to be competitive, says Allison Sekuler, dean of Graduate Studies at McMaster University, Chair of the Ontario Council of Graduate Studies, and lead author on the study.

”The results from our study are not specific to any one institution – they are consistent with concerns from students across Canada and internationally. Our goal is to raise awareness of these concerns across institutions, and to provide some recommendations for universities to address those concerns,” says Sekuler.

“We’ve been proactive in increasing professional development opportunities here at McMaster by partnering with Mitacs and others internally and externally. But there is always more we can do, and sharing ideas and approaches across institutions is the best way to ensure all graduate students will succeed regardless of their career paths.”

Take for example the recent 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, which challenged graduate students to hone their communication skills for a first-ever province-wide competition. Competitors had to distill years of research into a powerful, concise presentation – without technical jargon – and make it interesting for a lay audience, in what amounts to the dress rehearsal for a job interview.

“Our goal is to help students transform the academic and professional skills they learn during their graduate training into successful and productive careers,” says Barbara Crow, interim dean and associate vice-president of Graduate Studies at York University. “This report outlines more than 30 specific recommendations to ensure that universities and programs better address their needs.”

“Mitacs is pleased to partner with McMaster, York and other Canadian universities to support efforts to provide their graduate students with professional development opportunities, complementing the exceptional research and education occurring on their campuses,” says Robert Annan, study co-author and vice-president, Research and Policy for Mitacs.

The report was prepared for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and a complete copy can be found here.