Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral Graduates from Canadian Universities

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by Louise Desjardins and Darren King

Section 1 Introduction

While doctoral graduates represent only a small proportion of the Canadian work force — 0.8% in 20061 – they have a significant impact on Canada's long term economic prosperity due to their contributions to innovation and productivity growth through research and educational activities. In 2005, about 4,200 candidates earned a doctorate degree in Canada2. This number is approximately one tenth the number awarded in the United States in the same year (43,400)3.

Two general concerns have been raised regarding doctorates in Canada. The first is the number of graduates the system produces. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that Canada lags behind other developed countries in the production of doctoral degrees. In 2007, the rate of graduation from doctoral programs (labeled "advanced research programmes" by the OECD, or ISCED level 6) was 1.1% in Canada, compared to an OECD average of 1.4%4. However, this figure likely overstates what may be a weakness in the Canadian higher education system, since international comparisons rely on statistics reported by a large number of countries which may not always result in data that are fully comparable. Some analysts suggest that the graduation rate has some particularly problematic characteristics5.

Among OECD countries, the number of doctorate graduates has increased dramatically in recent years. Auriol (2010), in an OECD project on doctorate holders,6 notes that 200,000 doctoral degrees were awarded in 2006 across OECD countries compared to 140,000 in 1998, representing a 40% increase in 8 years. This is in contrast to Canada, which saw 4,500 doctorate degrees awarded in 2006, compared to 4,000 in 1998, an increase of just 13%. However, numbers have increased more steeply in recent years. In 2008, for example, 5,400 doctorates degrees were awarded for an increase of 40% from 5 years earlier7.

Related to how many graduates are produced is the issue of where they will live and work once their education is complete. Previous research has shown that over one fifth of doctoral graduates plan to live outside of Canada upon completion of their degree (Boothby, 2008; also King, Eisl-Culkin and Desjardins, 2008). Most students planned to move to the United States, many of these in order to complete postdoctoral studies. While this represents a significant loss in human capital from the Canadian economy, the problem may be overstated since the majority of leaving graduates (55%) also indicated that they planned to return to Canada to live and work in the future. In this paper, we show that two years following graduation, 24% of leavers had returned to Canada after spending some time in the United States, while the majority still in the United States continued to have intentions of returning.

A second concern is over how doctorate holders are employed in the economy. The Canadian Counsel of Academies notes that Canada's level of human capital is among the highest in the world, but fewer doctorates in Canada are employed by the private sector than in many other countries. They attribute this difference to lower business demand for advanced research skills and lower private investment in advanced research compared to the United States.8 

King, Eisl-Culkin and Desjardins (2008) also document the lower private sector employment rates of doctorate holders in Canada. They show that fewer Canadian doctoral graduates in 2005/2006 were expecting to be employed by industry than were American graduates, by about 5 percentage points. Instead, Canadian graduates were more likely to be employed by governments. While this type of comparisons to the United States is not available for this paper, we do find that most graduates are employed in a small number of industries, the largest being educational services.

The remainder of this report is organized as follows. Section two describes the data on which this report is based and discusses the advantages of using a linked data source. Section three describes the National Graduates Survey class of 2005 in terms of graduates' demographics and program characteristics. Section four examines mobility patterns, with a particular focus on graduates who move to the United States. Section five examines graduates' labour market outcomes, including employment rates, income, industry and the prevalence of overqualification. The final section provides some concluding remarks.


  1. Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Population, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 97-560-XCB2006011
  2. The number of graduates reported is from the Post-secondary Student Information System (PSIS), as cited in King, Eisl-Culkin and Desjardins (2008).
  3. Fiegener, Mark K. U.S. Doctorates Awarded Rise for Sixth Year, But Growth Slower, Arlington, National Science Foundation, Info Brief, November 2009.
  4. The graduation rate is calculated by the ratio of the number of graduates in a given year divided by the population at the typical age at graduation. See Statistics Canada, 2010. Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective2010. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 81-604-X. Ottawa. Statistics Canada and Council of Ministers of Education.
  5. Doctorate programs vary across countries in length of program, so it is not clear that Level 6 of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) is in fact comparing the same level of education. Other problems with measurement persist. See for instance Adelman, Clifford. 2009. "The Spaces Between Numbers: Getting International Data on Higher Education Straight". Washington, D. C., Institute for higher Education Policy, 59 p.
  6. Auriol, Laudeline. 2010. Careers of Doctorate Holders: Employment and Mobility Patterns. Paris: OECD. 29 p. Science, Technology and Industry Working Paper Series, no. 2010/4.
  7. Data from Statistics Canada, Postsecondary Student Information System (PSIS).
  8. Council of Canadian Academies. 2009. Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short. Ottawa, Council of Canadian Academies. 268 p.
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