How many PhDs does Canada need? Can their education be improved? With investment in place, these are core questions that need to shape science policy.

In its 2018 budget, the government of Canada reinvested significantly in science, increasing funding for research to be distributed by the three granting councils, known as the tri-council: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Addressing the key recommendations of the April 2017 Naylor Report, the budget was greeted with enthusiasm in the research and university sectors.

But while the reinvestments did much to address the state of Canadian science, they did little to secure its future. One line in the budget document promised that “over the next year, the Government will be doing further work to determine how to better support students, the next generation of researchers, through scholarships and fellowships” (89).

Research training has been largely lost in the conversation about science policy in Canada. The Naylor Report called for a reconsideration of both the number and the value of scholarships offered to graduate students by the tri-council, but it was largely silent on the question of the role of trainees in Canadian science, and the merits of the ways in which they are educated at Canadian universities.

Three interrelated aspects of research training require attention: how many PhDs does Canada need, how should their training be funded, and what changes are needed to the traditional educational model.

Too few or too many?

Many academics and policy-makers have strongly held views about whether Canada is training too few or too many PhDs. Those who see the PhD as preparation for academic careers argue that supply exceeds demand. Others point to Canada’s relatively low number of PhDs relative to other OECD countries.

The federal granting agencies consider it an objective of their scholarship programs to increase enrolment in research graduate programs, but an independent evaluation found no evidence that the scholarship programs have contributed to such an increase. Several provinces — notably Ontario — have funded universities to increase the number of students in doctoral programs in recent years.

Despite these efforts, the number of Canadian PhD students (citizens and permanent residents) is declining, while international enrolments are growing (figure 1). This trend is particularly pronounced in science and engineering disciplines. A substantial proportion of international students who receive a Canadian PhD remain in Canada (over one-quarter in a 2018 report on University of Toronto graduates).

Given the costs of training doctoral students, policy-makers should consider how many researchers Canadian universities should be training, and the desired mix of domestic and international students.

Approaches to funding

Funding for graduate students comes from a range of sources, which vary across disciplines and between universities. Tri-council funds are an important source; they can take the form of direct funding (scholarship or post-doctoral fellowships paid directly to the trainee) or indirect (grant funds controlled by the principal investigator, or PI, who pays the trainee). Direct funding has the advantage of identifying outstanding students and giving them a degree of autonomy in their training; indirect funding gives greater control to PIs and ensures that training supports the research mission. The three granting councils vary in their mix of direct and indirect funding, with SSHRC heavily favouring direct and NSERC and CIHR favouring indirect funding. One might argue that the reliance on indirect funding is a barrier to changing the model of graduate education. As the Naylor Report noted, the number of scholarships offered directly to doctoral students has remained static while the total number of doctoral students has increased, and the value of the scholarships has been eroded by inflation.

Models of graduate education

In the United States, there are calls for profound changes to graduate education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), to address the narrowness of graduate training, the lack of training in transferable professional and communication skills and the negative consequences of the mentorship model. Beyond substantive, methodological and ethical expertise, Canada’s next generation of researchers must be globally connected and competitive, capable of broad and flexible thinking that spans disciplinary boundaries and adept in knowledge translation, as the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies stated in a 2018 report. The traditional model of graduate education is not oriented toward developing these competencies.

The current model of graduate supervision in Canadian universities in STEM disciplines does not create opportunities for trainees to develop broad competencies. Students are often funded partially or wholly through the research grant held by a principal investigator, undertaking research work that is part of that investigator’s research program. The PI’s next grant depends on the productivity of the research group, so there is strong pressure for students to publish, and little incentive for PIs to ensure the students gain broader experiences. Universities offer a modest patchwork of supervisory development programs, most of which are optional, and they have professional development training for graduate students that often takes the form of optional workshops rather than core elements of curriculum. There are pockets of innovation in training, some supported by grants from NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) Program and others driven by faculty commitments. But for the majority of trainees, graduate education involves subject-focused course work, collaborative work in a lab on a PI’s research program and publication of peer-reviewed journal articles in a narrow field of research.

There is a great deal to be celebrated about the traditional model of graduate education and the kinds of training it provides. To succeed, students must work collaboratively in a team; they have the opportunity to engage directly in research and work closely with a leader in their field. But there is much in the traditional model that is in tension with the objective of educating the next generation of innovative researchers.

Where will change come from?

Calls for fundamental and profound changes to graduate education have no natural constituency in government, or even in many corners of the research university. A critical subset of research trainees — PhD students — are de facto a shared federal-provincial responsibility, poorly understood by both levels of government. As students, they are registered in academic programs accredited and monitored by provincial governments, and their numbers are a function of enrolment targets or incentives offered by those governments. As research trainees, their income is often derived largely from federal sources. Provincial officials are often unfamiliar with the unique organization and requirements of research degrees, and they see research training as largely irrelevant to ministerial mandates to ensure access to post-secondary education for recent high school graduates. From the perspective of the federal granting councils, particularly in the natural and medical sciences, graduate students can be seen as the inexpensive labour that moves science forward even as budgets remain static.

If we accept that the federal government has a more immediate stake in ensuring the development of the next generation of researchers, then it is federal science policy that must take up the cause. CIHR has articulated a research training strategy that acknowledges these challenges but does little to change the training environment. Similarly, NSERC in its strategic plan acknowledges the challenges but offers little in the way of specific action to remedy the situation. NSERC’s CREATE program, which offers research training grants that focus on providing multidisciplinary, collaborative learning for trainees in a particular area of research, is arguably the most tangible federal investment in transforming the research training environment; it is not clear whether it has had spillover effects beyond the grants awarded, which shape the training environment for a small proportion of trainees during the tenure of the grant. Federal funding for Mitacs, a nonprofit that creates training partnerships, has shaped the educational experience of a subset of trainees by exposing them to industry via research internships. All of these are moves in the right direction, but they do not add up to a comprehensive strategic approach to research training.

A comprehensive strategic approach requires the federal government to partner with provincial governments and universities. Such collaboration might lead to development of a national research training strategy with these goals:

  • Establish broad targets for numbers of trainees, to better align availability of seats and direct funding.
  • Identify strategies for addressing projected shortages in research expertise.
  • Articulate the competencies required for the next generation of researchers and make recommendations for reform of doctoral programs to emphasize these competencies.
  • Consider the role of trainees relative to the research granting system and ask whether reforms are required.
  • Articulate expectations for researchers who supervise graduate students and post-doctoral scholars.

At both the federal and provincial levels, Canadian governments are investing significantly in research training. The return on this investment would be substantially improved if it were better coordinated and organized in pursuit of a clear set of objectives that are shared by universities and both levels of government.

Photo: Shutterstock/zffoto


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