A thoughtful young man dropped in to see me other day.
November 19th, 2010

A thoughtful young man dropped in to see me other day. He is toying with the possibility of applying to our Interdisciplinary PhD program. Candidates in that program really have to have their acts together, having formed the framework for their research project and their supervisory committee well in advance of submitting an application itself. Without giving too much away I can say that his tentative project would be largely based in the arts faculty, drawing together the disciplines of Philosophy, English, Folklore, and, possibly, Education. We talked for a while about whether what he was considering was truly inter or merely multidisciplinary. Perhaps merely isn’t the right adverb. The point is that an interdisciplinary PhD should be just that.

Anyhow, we kicked his rather interesting research idea around for a while. At some point he said that one professor with whom he had consulted had advised him against pursuing an interdisciplinary degree because it would impede his chances of success at getting a job–a job in the academy, of course. That kind of observation really makes me crazy.

I have written before on this subject, and likely will again, because it’s important, and pretty well top of mind. My first thought is that Schools of Graduate Studies need to start educating supervisors about career counseling, based on the facts of the market. What we know today is that

•    75% of Ph.D.s will work in environments where other competencies are more important than research;
•    50% of doctoral recipients will find employment as tenure track faculty in a college or university. Most will be in a non-research institution.

Limiting the market right now for younger hires is the abolition of mandatory retirement. This means that more senior colleagues are hanging around their departments and programs, taking up office space and sizeable resources. A glance at the usual sites for job ads in the academy over the last year indicates the very narrow range of opportunities in virtually every field across the university.

I mentioned this to the thoughtful young man in my office who seemed genuinely pleased to hear some straight talk. I don’t want to discourage younger scholars from pursuing their dreams, but I do believe we have a moral obligation to let them know what the odds are out there, and to encourage them both to pursue their intellectual passions/degree and think wisely—with the right information—about their career paths.

So why are my colleagues still talking as if every one of their students were going to get a job at university? Wishful or deluded thinking?

Advising students away from interdisciplinary programs is just plain wacky. In view of the real job market facts, doctoral graduates are far more likely to secure positions in government, in publishing, industry, the not-for-profit sectors —you name it—than they are in post-secondary education institutions. One might think that a facility with interdisciplinarity is exactly what an employer would be seeking these days. One has to be nimble, agile, intellectually dexterous, creative, self-directed, and confident to get through such a program at that level.

I am not sure what the thoughtful young man is going to do, but at last he would be applying to a PhD program with a fuller knowledge of the consequences, some of those consequences being rather exciting—that is, once he starts thinking outside the ivory box.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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