Today’s science trainees and their supervisors say their postgraduate education is worth it, despite a changed and challenging job terrain

Is Canada producing too many PhDs?

That was the question posed at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference. Then-president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Dr. Suzanne Fortier, responded: “If you asked me, are we training too many people to become university professors, I think the answer is yes. Are we training too many highly educated people who are encouraged to be creative and push the advancement of knowledge? I’d say definitely not.”

How many PhDs is Canada producing? According to the Conference Board of Canada, 6,000—which might seem like a lot, but which the board notes is proportionately fewer than in comparator countries, and worth a “D” grade.

Most doctoral students pursue their degrees to become a university professor; however, employment outside academia is the norm for PhDs in Canada. Only 19% of PhDs work as full-time professors.

Against a backdrop of lower research funding and a scarcity of faculty positions, scientists at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) are steadfastly training the next generation of researchers. They do so because they know that without them Canada loses its capacity to innovate and understand the world. Trainees at SRI recognize the odds of joining the tenure track are not in their favour. Still, they press on.

For Dr. Isabelle Aubert, nothing beats life as a scientist. Aubert is a brain biologist at SRI who is developing therapies to stop degeneration of neurons and promote their regeneration in Alzheimer’s disease. She knew early on that she wanted to become a scientist.

I thought, ‘Wow, there’s no better job than this. We travelled a lot, so yes, it’s demanding, and you work all the time, but you also have a lot of flexibility.’

Despite the long hours and the pressure to publish and get funding, Aubert says she finds the job stimulating. As a graduate student, such challenges weren’t front of mind; rather, she was attracted by the collegial atmosphere modeled by her supervisor, and the opportunity to be productive and work toward achieving a worthy discovery. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s no better job than this. We travelled a lot, so yes, it’s demanding, and you work all the time, but you also have a lot of flexibility,’” says Aubert, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto.

It’s an optimism shared by some of today’s trainees, who are nonetheless all too aware of the challenging path in front of them.

Catherine Schrankel is a fifth-year PhD student in the lab of Dr. Jonathan Rast, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI. Her focus is on identifying the factors that specify the immune system of the developing embryo in the sea urchin.

She says she hopes to become an academic researcher, but has broadened her options because of the tough job market: “I’m starting to look at back-ups, which I didn’t come in thinking I would [do]. But they would still be related to science. I don’t know if I’d be happy if I didn’t have science somehow incorporated into what I do every day.” She is also looking at careers in scientific illustration and communication, and advocacy.

Most of Rast’s trainees have gone onto other academic positions, including a former postdoc who is a professor in Japan. Yet he says some trainees are disillusioned at their prospects and will leave research, which he considers a significant loss.

“It’s starting to feed back into the morale of the students. When a student comes out of here, I imagine you spend about $250,000 in training, with salary and materials. If they go into a field that doesn’t use that training, all of that is lost.”

Schrankel says anxiety over the shortage of academic jobs is common among her peers. She discusses her concerns with Rast because he faced similar uncertainty. Rast studied marine sciences and had aspirations of running his own lab, but was unsure about a future in basic research. “It was exciting, but at the same time you kind of knew that the funding was very limited for this type of stuff because it was distant from the practical, although it had huge implications,” he says.

Things worked out. As a scientist in the departments of medical biophysics and immunology at U of T, Rast uses the purple sea urchin as a model in which to study interactions among genes involved in immune response. “In retrospect, almost everybody I know that stuck with it and really wanted it ended up in an academic position. It was more attainable than it seemed,” he says.

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

Graduate enrolment in Canada has risen in the last 30 years. In 1980, there were 25,000 full-time masters students and 9,800 full-time PhD students. By 2010, the last year for which data are available, these numbers had ballooned to 82,400 and 45,000, respectively.

Moreover, with the end of mandatory retirement and budget cutbacks at universities, it’s no surprise there are more PhDs than the market can absorb.

Given the fierce competition for jobs, Aubert tells trainees they must be the best in their area. “You cannot be in the ‘excellent average’ category anymore. You need to be outstanding,” she says. She counsels students to publish, network with leaders in their fields, and seek a postdoctoral position sooner rather than later during their PhD training. Some labs have a waiting list for postdoctoral fellows to join. Applying early will increase their chances to get into the lab of their choice, where they can acquire specialized skills, expertise and publications.

Dr. Paul Nagy, who finished his PhD in Aubert’s lab in 2014, entered graduate school with a less conventional career path in mind. Before coming to SRI, Nagy worked for a pharmaceutical company. He became interested in drug development, but was advised by management that he would need an advanced degree to be promoted. “The motivation to get the PhD was never to become a principal investigator,” he says. “I did my undergrad, found a job and then found out I needed more to keep on moving up. The PhD was always related to that industry job.”

Nagy’s doctorate was on limiting and reversing neuronal damage in aging. He now works as Aubert’s research manager, a temporary position tied to one of her grants. With an emphasis on project management, Nagy thinks the role will help him make the transition back into industry.

He says getting his PhD was rewarding, but now that he has it, are the job offers from the private sector rolling in? Not quite yet. “I feel like I have the ticket to move up; I just don’t have the ticket to get in,” says Nagy.

Science for Science’s Sake

Aubert acknowledges there aren’t enough jobs for PhDs, but she says it’s crucial to keep training young people in science for Canada to thrive as a knowledge-based society. “Canadian neuroscientists have a solid reputation. We want to stay competitive at the international level. If research goes down, then creativity, knowledge and our well-being go down.”

The threat of losing our edge looms as support for researchers—particularly basic scientists—diminishes. Over the past decade, success rates of grant competitions held by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have fallen steadily. In 2005, about 25% of proposals were approved for funding; today, it’s 17%.

Dr. Paul Nagy, a recent graduate from the lab of Dr. Isabelle Aubert (right), wants a career in industry and believes that a PhD will help him.

Photo: Nation Wong

Furthermore, CIHR recently revamped its funding model, replacing the open grants program with programs geared toward applied research—a change many scientists, including Rast, find worrisome.

“What’s going to happen is that 20 years down the road, you’re going to end up with no new material to make advances on because there’s not going to be that basic science to start out from,” he says. “The majority of ideas being used in applied science came out of things that were not clearly connected to those applications early on. There’s also cutting-edge training of students. Those types of things will start to disappear, and you’ll have a bunch of people working more on something akin to engineering than discovery-based science.”

Dr. Katherine Buckley, a postdoc in Rast’s lab, says in spite of such challenges, she is pursuing an academic career. She is studying how genes are turned on and off during an immune response in various species of animals.

“I just wouldn’t want to do anything else. My motivation for this was never about money. All my friends are in their early 30s and have huge houses and nice cars, and I live in a tiny apartment. But we get to do what we want, and we have freedom. We get to be creative. That makes it worth it,” she says.

For Buckley and other postdocs, the licence to explore projects of interest come at the expense of reduced wages. A 2009 survey by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars shows that most postdocs in Canada are aged 30 years or older and earn less than $45,000 annually (before taxes), which is equivalent to the pay of a clerical assistant.

I just wouldn’t want to do anything else. My motivation for this was never about money.

“To be brutally honest, for the amount of time spent in school, had I gone into another field, the returns would have been much higher,” says Dr. Aws Abdul-Wahid, a postdoc in the lab of SRI senior scientist Dr. Jean Gariépy.

He and Gariépy study the biology of a molecule found on cancer cells with the aim of developing a vaccine to stop the spread of cancer to distant sites in the body. They have engineered a vaccine that works in preclinical models and are collaborating with drug companies to develop a formulation that can be tested in patients. After his postdoc, Abdul-Wahid plans to continue doing research in vaccine immunology.

What motivates him? The work itself. “For the first time, we’re giving a blueprint of an immune response that needs to be generated to prevent metastasis or decrease its severity. Metastatic cancer—this is what kills patients, and we’ve found a way to stop or limit it. I think this is worthwhile,” says Abdul-Wahid.

As for Buckley, she is wrapping up her postdoc and applying for jobs. She is hopeful a suitable position will open up, especially since she is willing to relocate. In spite of discouraging circumstances, she is concentrating on her work and maintaining a positive outlook. “It’s better to focus on the science and let the funding situation happen around you. I’m focusing on being good at what I do and doing interesting things, and going from there.”

— Alisa Kim