As I last wrote, I was at Carleton University recently…
June 11th, 2009

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As I last wrote, I was at Carleton University recently, along with 9,000 social scientists and humanities scholars for the annual learneds congress. About a third of the papers read or posted during the week-long event were authored by graduate students. The congress is an opportunity for social sciences and humanities students to peddle their wares, or intellectual capital in this case. The idea is to dazzle the audience, get noticed, become the buzz of the wine and cheese receptions, and hope that when the position ads are posted, your dazzle will translate into a job interview.

Good luck to ‘em. Last year at this time the job market, at least in academe, promised employment openings and opportunities. That was 2008, and the phrase ‘economic downturn’ hadn’t yet achieved the stigma of cliché. But that moment of optimism was as short-lived as Susan Boyle’s well being. So much has happened. Bernie Madoff is an orange jumpsuit, hedge fund wizards are selling lemonade, GM has run out of gas, and Canada, like every other nation, is sliding deeper into deficit. All those senior professors who were thinking of retirement and at least a year in Provence or Tuscany are rethinking their futures, stogging up the job market and crowding available space in the academy.  The disappearance of mandatory retirement is one of those good news bad news scenarios, great for those who still have much to give, not so good for those who yearn for a chance to enter the tenure-track stream.

Since 2003-04, Statistics Canada has been publishing the findings of an annual survey of earned doctorates (SED). The census provides invaluable information about the post-graduate labour market, such as debt loads, time to completion, and socio-economic backgrounds. The SED has been tracking the trends of the now 5,000 or so new Canadian doctoral graduates every year. That number is growing, although we sure have a long way to go against other developed nations. The data of the 2007-08 survey have just been published, and I would be surprised to see any surprises. Well over 75% of earned doctoral students expect to be working upon completion of their programs and, in fact, most do get employment of one kind or another, with about 50% actually ending up in the academy. The rest enter business or industry. Where do the rest of them go? Back to their parents’ basements? The Middle East?

It’s a fact: If you earn a doctorate your debt load will diminish, and you will be making a salary higher than anyone with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Besides, you will enter the circle of employable Highly Qualified Personnel the government is intent on expanding. And this country does need more HQP (sorry), let’s face it. We are sadly under educated. Just look around: see a lot of PhDs in your sight line?  In politics? On television?

Will the number of earned doctorates entering post-secondary institution employment shrink? Some Canadian universities have slowed the pace of new hirings, while others have frozen the process altogether, as their endowments suffer from the brutal economic punch.

Memorial is in relatively good shape–so far. We are still hiring here and there, and our losses haven’t been as severe as those in other campuses, where, you might add, they have more to lose. We are to other universities what Canada is to the world market—safe, bankable, welcoming.

Invariably, graduate students question what they are doing in a doctoral program in such uneasy times, in such a shaky market, with no guarantee of a job. I always say the same thing: if you like what you are doing; if you can’t imagine doing anything else; if you want to develop the life of your mind, not just the capacity of your wallet, then you should stick to the program. Things will turn out. I really believe that. I say it with conviction. Things did work for so many of my own generation, even while everyone decried the lack of employment opportunities, or conjured a grim future of over qualification and, as the singer crowed, no satisfaction. It doesn’t matter whether you are pursuing religious studies or physics: if you are honest about your pursuit, not just chasing status or some false notion of professionalism, then things will work out. The annual survey seems to bear this out.

I saw hundreds of fearless graduate students at Carleton, each one believing he or she is seeking a better path and a golden future. It’ll be heartening to see where they are in a couple of years, despite or perhaps even because of the tanking economy. Surely we need to bring more educated intelligence to the world’s table? Train thyself….

NG

Thanks to zizzybaloobah for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

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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