PhDs that work

Prepared notes for presentation at Future of the Humanities PhD in Canada held at Carleton University, May 18th 2016.


This is a study of 2100 faculty working as tenure or tenure-track faculty in English and History departments at universities in Canada. It includes all faculty in tenure or tenure-track positions at 47 schools ranked by Macclean’s magazine and 12 unranked programs (i.e. Grant MacEwan and Mount Royal). The unranked programs are limited to hybrid institutions (associate and baccalaureate degrees) with history, English, or humanities departments. For an institution to be included, it had to offer a 4 year degree in English or History.

This is not a placement study, and it’s not even a placement study of all English and History PhDs working in tenure/tenure track positions, since some are employed in interdisciplinary departments such as Religious Studies or Women’s Studies. In addition, PhDs may be working as full-time, permanent faculty at community colleges, CEJEPS, or at universities abroad.

What this study does provide is an overview of the main market for PhDs entering the professoriate: four-year Canadian institutions.  My goal is not to shame programs by releasing these numbers, but to push institutions to reflect on their graduate programs. If your PhDs are not landing tenure track jobs in Canada, where are they finding employment? How long does it take them to enter new career pathways after graduation? Do these positions provide employment security or are they insecure positions?  How can your department/institution better assist alumni in entering non-faculty careers?  What types of graduate student assistantships would prepare them for these careers?  Are there particular ways to strengthen your program by focusing on a combined degree that prepares PhDs in the humanities for careers in government, non-profit or industry?

Defining the problem

For decades, universities have been graduating more PhDs than tenure-track openings. This chart showing jobs data from the American Historical Association and the number of new PhDs in history from the Survey of Earned Doctorate, maps the mismatch between academic jobs and new faculty in History.

In the annual jobs report, the AHA includes all jobs advertised – non-tenure track, post-docs, senior hires – as well as new assistant professorships. The jobs included positions at non-US institutions (including Canada), but the SED numbers are for new graduates from only American institutions.

Less than half of all the jobs are tenure/tenure track assistant professorships.

PhDs_that_work_blog_2But there have never been more North Americans attending four-year institutions.  These two charts show the increase in enrolment in four year institutions in Canada and the United States.


PhDs_that_work_blog_5Yet to meet this demand, institutions are increasingly relying on part-time faculty. We do not have any reliable information on the number of PhDs working in contingent faculty positions, part-time or full-time in Canada, which is something that should be remedied.   Faculty from Wilfrid Laurier estimated that about 50% of all classes at that institution were taught be people off the tenure-track, while the administration said only 34% of faculty were off the tenure track (both could be true). [1]

To understand the adjunctification of the professoriate in Canada, we need to track (at least) six things: (1) the percentage of faculty at each institution off the tenure track; (2) the number of classes taught at each institution by non-tenure-track faculty; (3) pay; (4) if past work experience as an adjunct helps or hinders job candidates applying for tenure-track position and careers beyond the professoriate; (5) the number of adjuncts who prefer contingent employment over full-time.

PhDs_that_work_blog_blog_7This chart shows the growth in the percentage of adjuncts working in two and four year institutions in the United States. Note that the overall number of faculty has increased (there are more tenure/tenure track faculty than in the 1970s) but their share of teaching faculty in institutions has declined.

[1] On the lack of national data, see’t. For the story on Wilfrid Laurier, see

Faculty by the Numbers

Tenure/Tenure Track English and History Faculty in Canada

English faculty breaks about even between men and women, whereas men dominate in history departments. I don’t have information about the breakdown of PhDs in Canada by discipline, and we’d need historic data to know if this was representative of cohorts that graduated in the past 30 years.  In the last Survey of Earned Doctorates conducted by Stats Can (2008/2009), they found that women accounted for less than half of PhDs in the humanities.

PhDs_that_work_blog_8One of the oft-repeated myths of the academic job market is that most of the jobs are at “teaching” institutions. This is simply not true. As you can see, only about a quarter of all English and History faculty work at primarily undergraduate institutions and most work at institutions ranked Comprehensive or Medical/ Doctoral.

The same is true in the United States: more faculty employed at four-year institutions work at Research/Doctoral institutions than at baccalaureate (Carnegie Classifications).

PhDs_that_work_blog_9Why the confusion? Well, more institutions are undergraduate (57% of four-year /hybrid institutions in Canada) but they employ far fewer faculty than research-focused institutions.canada_us_institutions
In some ways, the Comprehensive/ Medical/Doctoral isn’t a helpful categorization for thinking about English and History faculty; York University and the University of Toronto end up in different categories, yet they are the largest programs for producing History and English PhDs. I’ve broken out faculty by large programs (30+ faculty), midsize (16-29 faculty or “Under 30”) and small (under 15) The most common faculty experience is in a midsize program, with less than a quarter working at small undergraduate-focused institutions.PhDs_that_work_blog_10


Only 4 history faculty in my sample had MA’s, but because creative writing is often part of English Departments, we see that a MA/MFA is the highest degree earned for about 4% of English. A much higher share of English faculty earned their PhDs in Canada.   More history faculty than English earned their degrees in a European country other than the United Kingdom. Most of the “European” trained faculty studied in France and work at Francophone institutions in Quebec. This perhaps explains the small number of European trained faculty in English, because most Francophone schools don’t have English literature departments.phds_that_work_blog_14.jpgThis graph shows faculty by area of specialization and where they earned their PhD. As you can see, while 52% of history faculty earned their PhDs in Canada, most teach/research Canadian history.

This below graph shows the same data with the plots reversed.

PhDs_that_work_blog_14_aAlthough we find Canadian trained PhDs teaching in all fields in English, many are specialists in Canadian literature. Most creative writing faculty hold an MFA/MA, but we also see PhDs who studied in Canada teaching creative writing.   (Other includes Children, Digital Humanities, linguistics.)


PhDs_that_work_blog_12Our largest programs hire most of their faculty from institutions outside of Canada. As you can see, departments under 15 hire more Canadian trained PhDs as a share of faculty, but have fewer faculty over all. Our largest departments hire a majority of faculty who are trained from institutions outside of Canada.

Of the 136 faculty trained in Canada working in the largest departments, 73% are Canadian Specialists.

Of the 217 Faculty trained in Canada working in mid-sized departments, 62% are Canadian Specialists.

In our smallest departments, of the faculty trained in Canada, 74% are Canadian Specialists.


Even though English has a larger share of faculty trained in Canada than history, the largest schools (McGill, York, Toronto, UBC, etc.) hire a majority of their faculty from outside of Canada (Only about 45% are trained in Canada).

The mid-sized programs, about 60% of faculty are trained in Canada, and at the smallest programs, 77% are trained in Canada. So, for Canadian trained English Lit PhDs, it is more likely that you’ll end up in midsized or small program than at the larger programs.PhDs_that_work_slides_17_bHere are the top 10 programs where faculty earned their degree (sum total). In both English and History, the University of Toronto dominates.

PhDs_that_work_slides_18This is a sum total of tenure/tenure track faculty in history departments who earned their PhDs at Canadian institutions. 14% of History Faculty earned their PhDs at the University of Toronto. If we look at the University of Toronto alumni as a share of Canadian trained faculty, that number jumps to 26%.

PhDs_that_work_slides_19It’s a similar situation in English: 16% of all faculty come from the University of Toronto and 28% of all Canadian trained faculty earned their PhD from the University of Toronto.

In a in a recent study I completed for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I looked at who landed 2500 tenure track jobs in North America in 11 academic disciplines (more info in a later slide). Only 51 of the 2500 jobs (or 2%) went to Canadian trained PhDs. Of 51, 18 took up positions in Canada.

So, at least, in this job market, there are not that many PhDs in the humanities being picked up by American institutions in any large number.


For this graph, I looked up each of the 2100 faculty in my sample in Worldcat to find the year they earned their PhD.   Each dot represents a cohort.  For example, 50 faculty in English earned their PHDs in 2000.

Nearly 40% of English faculty earned their PhDs between 1996-2005.  If we include 1991-1995, then it’s about 53%. But only 6% earned their PhD before 1980, and 7% earned their PhD between 1981-1985. In History, 42% earning their PhD between 1991-2005 and nearly 60% of history faculty earned their PhD between 1991-2005.

This means we’ll have a very slow trickle of tenure lines opening up in English and History over the next ten or so years.  Only when that bubble of faculty who graduated in the mid 1990s through the early 2000s retires will the academic job market open back up. (If those tenure lines are replaced and not slashed).  This mirrors what is happening in the United States. (Rob Townsend)

One thing I noticed as I was collecting data was how few Assistant Professors there were in most departments. This chart shows that in history and English, 54 PhDs from the last 5 cohorts are working as assistant professors in Canada. If you look at Canadian trained PhDs, that number shrinks to 27. In history, this is on track – about half the current faculty are trained in Canada. In English, this below the current number of 58%.


But Maren! You say. Give people time.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education study I completed earlier this year, we found that the single largest cohort of new hires in the humanities were ABDs (all but dissertation) and that the numbers drop dramatically after that year. In English, 50% of new hires were ABD or had their degree in hand for 1 year; in Comp/Rhet that number was 75%. With only a few exceptions, the ABDs graduated prior to taking up their posts.

PhDs_that_work_slides_24It was similar in History, with 53% of jobs going to ABDs or year 1 with degree in hand. Most of the hires after year 3 were assistant professors making lateral moves.


While ABDs represent the largest single cohort of new hires, they are not the majority of new hires. Most people were working in a previous position (usually 1-3 years out for humanities, 3-5 years out for STEM).

I aggregated titles, since they can very across institutions. :18% of hires were going to Assistant professors making lateral moves. To be counted as an “adjunct” the hire had to use that or a similar title that signified a semester-to-semester contract on their c.v. Term Limited Assistant professors, lecturers, instructors, were categorized on VAPs.

The other question people ask me is: how likely is it how often will a VAP or Post-Doctoral position lead to a full-time job at that institution? The answer: rarely. Only 87 people were hired into a tenure track position at the institution where they were in a limited term or post doctoral position.

So, where do PhDs go when they don’t land tenure track jobs?  Soon, we’ll have complete TRaCE data, which will be amazing!  Until then, we’ll have to look south of the boarder because, again, Canada lags far behind our southern neighbour on collecting, publicizing, and studying trends in higher education.

In 2013, I worked on a study for the American Historical Association tracking career pathways of 2500 history PhDs from American institutions who graduated between 1998 and 2009. Remember, these were “the good years” on the academic job market, so it is unlikely that current cohorts will see a similar 50% placement rate in tenure track positions.


From the same study, this is where 25% working beyond the professoriate found employment. Students often find this chart frustrating, since it shows a very fragmented cohort working in a variety of industries. But what this reflects is how the non-academic job market operates: people are finding employment using their own network, finding opportunities within communities they live in, reflective of their own personal industries, knowledge, and skill set.