Alternative careers for Ph.D. holders

Frogs and Ravens writes about an article published in the Chronicle on alternative careers for Ph.D. holders. She cites the following passages from the article:

Is there a chance that the alternative-careers movement (which in many ways I laud and admire) has unwittingly sold humanities Ph.D.’s yet another professional pipe dream? Could it be that all of us — both those still “in” academe (that is, in the professoriate) and those in the nonacademic realm — still share a misguided optimism about the marketability of a humanities Ph.D.?


I’m not sure yet about the answers to those questions. But what I am seeing is that for people like me who finished a traditionally configured graduate program, the cold truth is that translating a humanities Ph.D. into well-paying and personally satisfying employment beyond the faculty ranks is a difficult slog with an unpredictable outcome.

That’s a very insightful statement which I think can be extended to all Ph.D.s not just humanities.

The cold hard truth is that, at least in Canada, there is very little room for Ph.D. holders. There is little room in industry as well as in universities. Little room compared to what? Compared to the number of Ph.D.s produced. For example, in 2002, UQÀM had almost a hundred students in some Ph.D. programs. If everything goes well, this means a single school in Canada can produce 10 Ph.D.s a year in a given field: I doubt many fields have much more than 10 openings a year in all of Canada.

There appears to be more jobs, maybe, in government, but that’s cyclic. One day the government will be looking for 5 researchers on aluminium technology, the other day they will be looking for 5 researchers on artic climate… If you are looking for a job, I suggest looking for openings in your government. But it won’t solve all your problems: there might not be any job for you and there might be stiff competition for these jobs. Or you might not like a government job.

Now, some people have been saying that Ph.D.s should look for alternative jobs (outside universities). I’ve complained before in this pages that I failed at getting an industry job when I graduated with my Ph.D. (Nothing like using a blog to talk about one’s failures.) I think I’m a reasonably bright guy, so, no, companies are not starving for fresh Ph.D.s That’s a myth.

In fact, I was having lunch with a colleague the other day who spent many year in industry and he admitted to hiding away his Ph.D. in order to get a job. I got this advice several times.

Is this sane?

How do we fix this? Information! We have to get the word around to potential Ph.D. students about how the job market is. If you are a professor, like myself, tell your student about it. I know I did by posting on my blog and Steven (a M.Sc. student I supervise) definitively read some of my posts about jobs being hard to come by with a CS degree. Before you accept a Ph.D. student, have good talk with him. If you know people considering a Ph.D. path, tell them about what you know.

I’m not saying we should close down Ph.D. programs! But we should be honest and forthcoming about the job prospects. A university is not a Walmart. We don’t have to sell education at all cost.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Alternative careers for Ph.D. holders”

  1. Another perspective would be to stop thinking of “jobs” as the end-state. With all of that education, how about creating a new business? I think that long-term jobs are a thing of the past, so get over it folks. Academia is the only place left with tenure so enjoy it while you can.

    My advice to a potential PhD student? Do something that you love to do, and don’t worry about the return on investment. If you want ROI, get an MBA (but even these are depreciating in value).

    As the most educated members of our society, doctoral graduates should be leading the way in creating new business models, and not just asking, “where can I get a job?”.

  2. Well, the trouble is that when you finish your Ph.D., you have no money saved up, no house, often no car,you are probably thirty something or older (or slightly younger). You have much less work experience than anyone else, you have much less business experience. You have spent many years preparing yourself for a world that doesn’t really exist.

    So, telling them to create new business models is to expect a lot from someone who has learned the nuances of a specific author or how to best design a specific type of robot. They are simply ill prepared to go into business (in general), more so than people who did go for the Ph.D.

    I knew someone who started a Ph.D. in robotics. I have no idea if he finished it since we lost touch. But I remember asking him where he thought he could work with a Ph.D. in robotics. It seemed obvious to him. First, he agreed with me that a university job might be hard to get, but then he assumed an industry job would be much easier. After all, he would be an expert in robots… surely a highly sought-after skill? Well, no. Very, very few companies make robots; very, very few people buy robots. So, even if you do a Ph.D. in something that seems industry-related, you might still get into deep trouble and have trouble paying your student debts later. My friend was not silly though. I know he did find a job, and it is robotics-related, but I doubt he finished his Ph.D.

    A Ph.D. is not something that will help you start a company or get a job. This is the cold hard truth. 5 years of experience in almost anything can be more valuable on the job market than a Ph.D.

    Don’t get me wrong, it is not all bleak… And I did go into business after my Ph.D. and I was succesful. And I did get to do cool things like run the NRC eHealth Research Group, or be a professor in Nova Scotia, and now a professor in Montreal. Doesn’t it sound like fun? Well a lot of it was… But not all of it is fun… competing for an ordinary job against 150 other Ph.D. holders can be tremendously frustrating.

  3. University is a complete waste of time. Go to a technical college or learn a trade. I’m dumping my Masters degree in favour of a technical diploma………. enough said!

  4. Unfortunately, for International students, things are much more difficult. At least in the US, if you want to stay, then you’d have to get a job before you can finish your PhD. I think things are easier in Canada, which gives immigration status to students by the time they graduate , at least my friends became residents or even citizens by the time they finished their PhDs. The US scenario is weird … there is a huge need for people with skills, but tons of obstacles are thrown in their path.

    Many of the alternative careers are, therefore, not suitable for Intl students. And from what I see, they are the largest group among PhD students. At least in my school … >75% PhD students are International.

Leave a Reply to Harold Jarche Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To create code blocks or other preformatted text, indent by four spaces:

    This will be displayed in a monospaced font. The first four 
    spaces will be stripped off, but all other whitespace
    will be preserved.
    Markdown is turned off in code blocks:
     [This is not a link](

To create not a block, but an inline code span, use backticks:

Here is some inline `code`.

For more help see