The impact of a faltering loonie and the collapse of energy prices are the latest reminders that Canada has to get serious about a transition to a knowledge economy.

That’s not an easy task. But we can start by recognizing an under-utilized asset – Canada’s PhDs.

There’s been an ill-conceived notion that this country produces too many PhDs or that they are suited only for positions in academia. In fact, some of the best examples of Canadian resourcefulness that the Prime Minister has been pitching are incubated in graduate schools

The men and women who complete graduate degrees are vital to a flourishing economy and a healthy society. The rigorous path to their personal academic accomplishment imparts not only deep knowledge of their subject area but the discipline, creativity and analytic ability that is the mark of business and community leaders.

They are trained to be critical thinkers. They think outside the box and challenge conventional wisdom. But more importantly, they often seek understanding of what is truly going on inside the box. This is intellectual capital we cannot afford to squander while building Canada’s future.

It is no coincidence that five of the 31 members of Canada’s federal cabinet hold PhDs. Nor is it a fluke that the number of PhDs sitting in Parliament is at an all-time high and that at least two provincial premiers have earned doctorates. From anthropology to medical geography to political science, evidence- based policy and innovative thinking are key to solid decision-making.

In a recent series of national round tables with graduate students, an important value emerged as a common thread. From Newfoundland to Victoria, these Canadians were rooted in community. They spoke of tapping in to local knowledge, their responsibility to share their research and engage the community, and their thirst to work with colleagues from other disciplines and sectors to broaden understanding, perspective and impact.

The Ivory Tower, if it existed, is being torn down from the inside. But more needs to change if Canada is to maximally benefit from the knowledge, intellect and drive of its accomplished workforce.

Canada’s graduate schools have adapted in light of current market demands. Over the past five years they have intentionally led change. Whether teaching the art of the elevator pitch or the skill of project management, they’ve instituted professional development programs that promote a strong foundation of employability skills common to all sectors. Significant opportunities have been created to gain experience and learning beyond the dissertation. Grad deans know the importance of equipping PhDs to adapt and succeed in a world of constant change that affects disciplines, technology, environmental and society.

This responsibility; however, is not theirs alone; investment in Canada’s economic well-being is essential.

Globally, the number of PhD holders is rising. Their career paths are diverse and the majority contribute to sectors outside the academy. This is a hallmark of knowledge-based economies that embrace innovation as a strategy for growth. Advanced European economies, the United States and the United Kingdom actively integrate PhDs into all sectors of their economies. They outperform Canada in terms of research and development expenditures and productivity.

In Canada, labour outcomes for earned doctorates have remained steady over the past 15 years, absorbing the almost doubling of PhD degrees over the same time period into diverse careers. Even so, the percentage of the Canadian population holding a PhD lags behind other OECD countries. We are not keeping pace with the intellectual talent pool needed to drive innovation, creativity and social/cultural advancement.

As part of an economic development strategy, it is imperative that we prepare graduates for the current labour market as well as for jobs not yet created. Active partnership between academia and both public and private sectors is crucial to bolstering Canada’s competitiveness and prosperity. Simultaneously, government and social investment in research, development and innovation will drive demand for a highly trained and educated workforce.

Our PhDs are a source of top talent and transferable skills making them valued and valuable contributors to our economic and social development. Canada has a lamentable record of showcasing the real impacts Canadian PhDs have had in advancing many aspects of society. Addressing this will make a difference.

To that end, let’s give graduate schools, businesses, organizations and community stakeholders the incentive and support to break down those silos and clear the path for PhDs. Indications are that they are well able to take it from there.

Submitted by: Brenda Brouwer, President of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies and Vice-Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies at Queen’s University.

Canadian Association for Graduate Studies
301 – 260, St-Patrick Street
Ottawa ON K1N 5K5
Tel: 613 562 0949

“This piece first appeared in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business