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Graduates of doctoral programs – Who are they and what are their post-degree plans?

Field of study
Time to completion
Financing an advanced degree
Job plans
International mobility

In a knowledge-based society, there are strong links between graduate education, research and economic growth. The role of doctoral graduates in such a society is unique, due to their highly specialized education and extensive training in research. They are essential to the production, application and transmission of knowledge. They contribute to our knowledge by performing research and development work throughout many industry sectors. By choosing to work or study in other countries, they can enhance the flow of knowledge and information across international boundaries. By choosing to teach other students following their graduation, they can make a contribution to future generations by participating in this form of knowledge transfer. Doctoral degree holders help develop knowledge networks, “grow” research and development capacity and encourage innovation.

In 2003, Statistics Canada launched the Survey of Earned Doctorates. This survey was designed to provide previously unavailable data on the labour market plans of graduates, how doctoral candidates fund their graduate studies, how much time was required to complete a doctoral degree as well as basic data on the demographic characteristics of the graduates.1 Statistics Canada researcher, Valerie Peters, and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada researcher, Tomasz Gluszynski, recently published a report analyzing the first results from the Survey of Earned Doctorates.2 Their main findings are summarized here.

Field of study

Between July 1, 2003 and June 30, 2004, 3,600 students graduated from Canadian universities with doctoral degrees. Three fields of study accounted for nearly half of all graduates: 21% graduated from biological sciences programs, 13% from engineering programs and another 13% from humanities programs.

Overall, for every two female graduates there were three male graduates. If foreign students (the vast majority of whom are male) are excluded, the balance between men and women is more equal: men comprised 53% and women 47% of Canadian graduates.

Engineering was the most unevenly represented field, with almost six times more male than female graduates. Other fields where men outnumbered women by a considerable margin included computer science/mathematics, and other physical sciences. Women outnumbered men among graduates from health science and psychology programs.

Close to one-quarter of all doctoral graduates from Canadian universities in 2003-2004 were foreign or visa students and about 75% of these were male. The most popular programs of study for these graduates were engineering, physical sciences and life sciences (about three-quarters of all foreign students graduated from one of these three programs, compared to about half of all Canadian graduates). In fact, foreign students accounted for about four-out-of-every ten graduates from engineering and physical science programs.

Time to completion

To graduate from a doctoral program, candidates often have to meet a variety of conditions. Depending on the program and the university, a doctoral candidate might have to meet a performance requirement, produce a literary composition, research, write and defend a dissertation, report on research findings, publish research results or demonstrate proficiency in a second language in order to graduate.

On average, doctoral graduates completed their degrees in about 70 months, or 5 years and 10 months. Graduates from five fields of study (professional, psychology, education, biological and agricultural programs) had similar times to completion. Graduates from only two programs (humanities and social sciences) took significantly more time to complete their doctorates – about 80 months, or 6 years and 8 months. Graduates from all other programs took significantly less time to complete their degrees.

Slightly over half (56%) of all graduates were between 30 and 39 years old when they graduated, 24% were 40 or older, and 20% were 29 or younger. Graduates from some fields of study (psychology, computer science and mathematics, other physical sciences, biological sciences and chemistry) tended to be slightly younger than average at graduation. Of these five fields of study with younger-than-average graduates, four of them (chemistry, engineering, computer science and mathematics, and other physical science) also had shorter times to completion.

The highest average age at graduation was reported by graduates from the field of education (46 years). The lowest average age was found among chemistry graduates (31 years). While part of the difference in age at graduation is due to the fact that, on average, education graduates take longer to complete their doctorates than do chemistry graduates, it is likely that it is also partly due to education graduates being older when they begin their doctoral programs.

Financing an advanced degree

Doctoral candidates have a variety of ways of funding their studies including scholarships, fellowships, research and teaching assistantships, loans, personal savings, support from an employer and employment earnings.

The university at which the graduate had studied played a large role in providing funding to graduates: the two most frequently reported sources of financial support were provided directly by the institution. Teaching assistantships provided by the institution were the most frequently reported source of funds (64% of graduates said that they had received this type of financial support), followed by a fellowship or scholarship from the institution (reported by 58% of graduates).

Doctoral degree holders complete their graduate education after spending a considerable amount of time studying at the postsecondary level — usually 4 years at the undergraduate level, 2 to 3 more years at the master’s level and another 6 years or so at the doctoral level. How much debt they accrue over the period of their postsecondary studies depends on a variety of factors, including what non-loan funding options were available to them, personal and family savings and their personal employment income over the period.

About half of all doctoral graduates completed their studies without owing any money that was directly related to their graduate education (including studies at the master’s level) – 56% reported that they graduated without any debt related to their graduate studies.

Of the 44% of graduates who reported that they were carrying debt directly related to their graduate studies, approximately 41% reported owing $10,000 or less, 27% owed between $10,000 and $20,000 and 32% owed more than $20,000.

The highest proportions of graduates reporting that they had no debt from their graduate studies were found among graduates from engineering and physical science programs (about 68% for graduates from either program). The proportion reporting no debt was about the same, approximately 55%, for graduates from life science, social sciences and other fields of study. It was lowest (about 45%) for graduates from humanities programs. Approximately one-in-four humanities graduates owed over $20,000 at the time of graduation – the highest proportion among all fields of study.

Overall, almost half (46%) of all PhD graduates completed their programs with no education-related debt at all. About 25% had debt only from their graduate program, 10% had debt only from their undergraduate program and 19% had debt from both.

Job plans

At the time of their graduation, almost three quarters of all doctoral graduates had made definite plans for work or further study for the year following their graduation: over half had either signed a contract or made a definite commitment to work or study with an organization and 20% were returning to, or continuing in, the same employment/position they had held prior to graduation. The remainder (about 25%) were either in the process of employment negotiation, seeking a position or had no plans to work or study.

Among the different fields of study, the proportions of graduates with definite plans ranged from about 65% among graduates of engineering and humanities programs to almost 80% among life science graduates.

Of those who did have firm plans, most (56%) were planning to work, with the rest planning on pursuing further study or training activities, with taking a postdoctoral fellowship being the most popular option (34%). Other training or study options, such as postdoctoral research fellowships, internships, clinical residencies and other types of traineeships were being pursued by about 10% of graduates with firm plans.

Among graduates with firm plans, the vast majority (84%) of graduates from the “other program” group, which is dominated by graduates from education and professional programs, were planning on working after graduation. Similarly, most graduates from humanities, social science and engineering programs with definite plans were also going to be working. Among graduates from life sciences programs who had made definite plans, most (64%) were planning on continuing their training or study through a postdoctoral fellowship or other arrangement.

For doctoral graduates with definite plans for employment, roughly equal proportions (just over 30%) reported that their primary work activities would be related to either research and development activities or teaching activities.

Working in research and development activities was reported most often by graduates from engineering, life sciences and physical science programs. Graduates from humanities and “other” programs were most likely to report teaching as their primary activity while employment in professional services was the most commonly reported activity among social science graduates.

The majority of graduates (57%) with firm employment plans were going to be working in the educational services industry. Three other service industries (professional, scientific and technical services, health care and social assistance, and public administration) would each be providing employment to about 10% of graduates. In total, about 90% of all graduates with firm employment plans were reporting these four industries as the areas of their employment. Only a very small proportion (about 5%) was going to be working in goods-producing industries.

Among graduates with definite plans for employment in the year following graduation, almost 60% reported that their annual wage or salary would be $55,000 or more. Only about 12% reported that their annual earnings would be below $35,000. Large differences were observed across graduates from the different programs: 78% of graduates from “other” programs expected to be in the higher income range ($55,000 and over), closely followed by graduates from engineering and physical science fields. In comparison, only 35% of doctoral graduates from humanities reported to be in that income range.

Figure 1. Expected earnings of doctoral graduates with firm employment plans for the coming year

Figure 1. Expected earnings of doctoral graduates with firm employment plans for the coming year
Source: Tomasz Gluszynski and Valerie Peters. 2005. Survey of Earned Doctorates: A Profile of Doctoral Degree Recipients. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE—Number 032.

International mobility

A sizable majority of doctoral graduates intended to live in Canada in the year following graduation. Of those who indicated their intended country of residence, almost 80% were planning on staying in Canada. Another 13% were planning on moving to the United States and about 7% intended to move to some other country. Foreign students, who are admitted to Canada for the purpose of studying at a Canadian institution, might be considered among those most likely to be planning to leave the country once they had completed their studies. The results from the survey show that this is not the case – the majority (just over 60%) reported that they intended to remain in Canada.

Male graduates represented approximately 57% of all graduates, but 67% of those intending to move. Similarly, graduates who had never been married and were not living common-law represented only 27% of all graduates, but comprised 41% of those intending to move. Not having dependent children also seems to have an effect on a graduate’s residency intentions: only 25% of graduates intending to leave Canada reported having dependent children while this group represents 37% of all graduates.

Among all the fields of studies, doctoral graduates from life science programs comprised the largest single group of “leavers” — just over 40% of all those who intended to live in a country other than Canada after graduation were life science graduates.

Only a very small proportion (about 8%) of those graduates who were intending to move away from Canada reported that they had no plans to return to this country in the future. Almost half, however, indicated that they did plan to return and another 38% stated that they did not know if they would return or not.


Doctoral graduates are the most highly educated portion of the population and with their knowledge and skills, they are in a position to contribute significantly to Canada’s economy and society.

A large proportion of doctoral graduates reported that they would be involved in research and development activities, either through employment or through postdoctoral study or training. This is likely to add to Canada’s research and development capacity – particularly given that the vast majority of graduates intend to remain in this country. A large proportion will also be involved in teaching, with most of those likely to be in a postsecondary environment.

The issue of ageing staff is a central concern facing the management of universities. The group of educators who are now preparing for retirement was hired in the 1970s, at a time of significant growth in the postsecondary system. As the youth population declined in the 1980s, slowing enrolment growth meant fewer educators were hired during this period. Looking ahead, large numbers of faculty hired during the 1970s enrolment boom are in a position to retire over the next decade, at the same time that the population of 19- to 24-year-olds is projected to increase. The fact that many doctoral graduates plan to pursue careers as educators could play a role in helping universities to meet their staff renewal needs over the coming years.


  1. Of the approximately 3,600 students who graduated from a doctoral program at one of 47 Canadian universities in 2003–2004, approximately 300 graduates from nine universities did not have the opportunity to complete a survey questionnaire and so they are not included in the analysis reported here. The data presented in the report refer only to the 3,327 graduates who did receive a questionnaire (not all completed the questionnaire, but the data have been adjusted for these non-respondents).

  2. Tomasz Gluszynski and Valerie Peters. 2005. Survey of Earned Doctorates: A Profile of Doctoral Degree Recipients. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE—Number 032.

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