Investment in advanced talent key to Canada’s success in the knowledge economy: U of T study

Career Outcomes study finds that while U of T continues to be Canada’s leading generator of academic talent, an increasing number of PhD graduates are finding success in the private sector
a woman looks over a resume while the candidate looks on

(photo by Xavier Lorenzo/Getty Images)

PhD graduates are experiencing growing demand for their knowledge and skills across multiple sectors – further evidence that strategic investments in advanced talent support Canada’s global competitiveness.  

A new Career Outcomes study, led by the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies, finds that while U of T continues to be Canada’s leading generator of academic talent, an increasing number of PhD graduates are also finding success in the private sector.

Employers now recognize that universities are both generating new discoveries and training the industry leaders they need, says Joshua Barker, vice-provost, graduate research and education and dean of the School of Graduate Studies.

“What we’re seeing is that U of T is playing a role in bringing advanced researchers, with their specialized knowledge and skills, into the workforce,” says Barker, who recently joined academic, industry, government and other leaders to discuss the study at an event hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and U of T’s Government Relations Office – part of the New Frontiers for Policymakers policy discussion series.

“The more pathways there are to move back and forth between university, industry and non-profit, the better it is for a robust, resilient and competitive economy.”

The Career Outcomes study shows that professional paths for U of T’s PhD graduates are expanding, based on a survey of publicly available data on roughly 16,000 alumni over the past two decades.

While the post-secondary sector remains the primary employer for PhD graduates, the study shows a nearly 10-per-cent rise in private sector employment for PhD grads when comparing the 2000-2015 and 2016-2021 cohorts – from 19 per cent to 27 per cent. 

The top industries hiring PhD graduates include life sciences, engineering, trades and transportation and health and information technology. 

PhD graduates in the physical sciences, meanwhile, were the most likely to find employment in the private sector, amounting to nearly 43 per cent of all alumni as of 2022. Major employers included Google, Intel and Royal Bank of Canada.

At present, only about one per cent of Canadians have a PhD degree. But this number may rise following the federal government’s recent commitment to invest $825 million over the next five years to increase the value and number of scholarships for master’s students, PhD students and post-doctoral fellows.

“The recent investment that the federal government made has a huge impact for us, and I think it will help accelerate some of the trends that we’re seeing,” says Barker, adding that sustained support is necessary to develop the pipeline of advanced research talent to fuel Canada’s innovation ecosystem.

From left to right: Darius Ornston, associate professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and interim director of research; Ann Meyer, director, bioInnovation Scientist Program at adMare Academy, adMare BioInnovations; Rafal Janik, COO, Xanadu, Joshua Barker, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice-provost, graduate research and education (photo by Simona Chiose)

That includes startups such as Toronto-based Xanadu, founded by former U of T post-doc Christian Weedbrook, which is working to build the world’s first photonic-based, fault-tolerant quantum computer. 

“We still have a long way to go from a research perspective,” says Rafal Janik, Xanadu’s chief operating officer, who attended the New Frontiers event and talked about why the company recruits PhD graduates. “I think our entire team has post-graduate degrees. I think everybody has some connection to U of T from that space as well.”

The study also finds a notable uptick in private sector employment among PhD graduates in the life sciences, with nine per cent more graduates from 2016-2021 in industry jobs compared to the previous cohort.

The non-profit adMare BioInnovations is playing a role in moving PhD graduates’ research out of the lab so it can be turned into new treatments and therapies.

"The adMare Academy offers programming that enables PhD graduates and others to see the commercial potential in their research and to understand what it takes to translate that research into commercially viable therapeutics,” says Ann Meyer, director of adMare’s BioInnovation Scientist Program.

It’s not only STEM fields where PhD grads are finding private sector employment.

The study shows that nine per cent of humanities graduates worked in the private sector in 2022, with many in this group exploring fields outside academia including media and publishing (15 per cent), arts and culture (35 per cent), education (10 per cent) and banking and finance (seven per cent). 

At the same time, the post-secondary employment pattern for social sciences graduates remains steady. More than half are in tenure-track roles at Canadian universities, and a fifth are in teaching-focused positions at universities and colleges.

Overall, 47 per cent of all PhD graduates over the study period were employed in the post-secondary sector.

With about 1,000 PhD graduates a year, U of T trains one in seven of Canada’s doctorate holders and plays a pivotal role in advancing the exchange of ideas that drives Canada’s prosperity and progress. 

“U of T is continually replenishing and rejuvenating the workforce across higher education,” Barker says. “These institutions, in turn, train the next generation of undergrad and graduate students who will go out and work across the economy.”