Characteristics of doctoral graduates

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Demographic profile
Distribution of doctoral graduates by their field of study
Gender composition of graduates
Foreign or visa students at Canadian institutions
Immigration status of doctoral graduates
Program length

While Census data provides context to the overall picture of doctoral degree holders in Canada, SED yields a snapshot of doctoral degree recipients at a point in time, the education system that has trained them, and their plans for the labour market or further studies.

Demographic profile

Doctoral graduates spent a considerable number of years in the education system, and some began their studies only after first gaining experience in the labour market. The median age of doctoral graduates in 2005/2006 was 33 years old, the same as for the previous two years. Twenty-three percent of graduates were younger than 30 years old at the time of graduation, 53% were between 30 and 39 years of age, and 24% were over the age of 39. Nearly 7 in 10 graduates were either married or in a common law relationship and 36% had dependent children.

A large proportion of doctoral graduates had parents or guardians with advanced degrees. Two percent of graduates reported that their mother had a doctorate degree, 8% indicated that their mother had a master's degree, and 3% indicated that their mother had a professional degree. Educational attainment was even greater for the fathers of graduates, with 8% indicating that their father had a doctorate degree, 10% had a father with a master's degree and 8% had a father with a professional degree.

Nonetheless, it is creditable that the largest proportion of students reported parental education below high school completion. Twenty-three percent of graduates indicated that their mother had not completed high school and 20% of graduates indicated that their father had not completed high school.

Distribution of doctoral graduates by their field of study

The biological sciences continued to be the most popular field of study among graduates. In the 2005/2006 academic year one fifth of doctorates awarded were in this field, as was true in the two preceding years. The next largest field of study was engineering with 15% of graduates, followed by physical sciences with 11% of graduates.

There were some small changes in the field of study choice since the 2003/2004 academic year. Increases were observed in the proportion of graduates in health sciences (two percentage points) and in professional fields (one percentage point). These differences were offset by a decrease in psychology (two percentage points) and agricultural sciences (one percentage point) as well as in the humanities (a three percentage-point decrease).

Comparing the distribution of field of study in Canada and the United States highlights Canada's strength in the biological sciences as well as in health sciences. Canadian graduates were six percentage-points more likely to have been enrolled in the biological sciences and two percentage-points more likely to have been enrolled in health sciences. Conversely, American graduates were more often enrolled in the humanities (two percentage-point difference) and in education (six percentage-point difference).

Chart 6 Distribution by field of study for Canada and the United States. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 6
Distribution by field of study for Canada and the United States

Gender composition of graduates

For several years women have accounted for the majority of students at Canada's universities. In 2005, 62% of graduates at the undergraduate level and 52% of graduates at the master's level were women.1 However, this trend has yet to translate into equality at the doctoral level. According to the SED, women accounted for 44% of doctoral graduates in the 2005/2006 academic year. This was higher than the 2003/2004 level of 43%, but below the previous year's proportion of 46%.

When visa and foreign students were examined separately the results showed a somewhat different picture. Since visa and foreign students were disproportionately male, when these students were excluded from the analysis the proportion of Canadian graduates who were women was 48%. In contrast, only 32% of foreign graduates were women. The proportion of foreign graduates who are women has grown by five percentage points since the 2003/2004 graduating class, while the proportion of Canadian graduates who are women was roughly the same.

The proportion of women remained widely varied across fields of study, but showed movement towards greater gender equality

There are also interesting differences in the gender distribution across fields of study. Men made up the majority of graduates in engineering (86%), computer and information sciences and mathematics (82%), physical sciences (68%), and biological sciences (54%). Conversely, women were the majority in psychology (70%), education (62%), health sciences (60%), and social sciences (56%).

Chart 7 Proportion of women by field of study. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 7
Proportion of women by field of study

It is worth noting that there appears to be movement towards greater equality in several different fields of study since the 2003/2004 graduating class. In agricultural sciences the proportion of women grew from 34% in 2003/2004 to 49% in 2005/2006. Similarly, in the physical sciences the proportion of women grew from 23% to 32%, and in professional fields/other fields the proportion of women grew from 38% to 51%. On the other hand, the proportion of women in health sciences decreased from 72% to 60% over the same time period. There was only one field of study which showed a significant change that was not towards greater equality. Between 2003/2004 and 2005/2006 the proportion of women in the social sciences increased from 47% to 56%. In all other fields of study the change in the proportion of female graduates between 2003/2004 and 2005/2006 was not statistically significant.

The 2004/2005 graduates had the largest proportion of women of any of the three years observed in the SED. As a result, between the 2004/2005 and 2005/2006 academic years the proportion of women dropped significantly in three fields of study: computer and information sciences and mathematics (twelve percentage-points), psychology (eight percentage-points), and education (eleven percentage-points).

Chart 8 Changes over time in the proportion of women by field of study. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 8
Changes over time in the proportion of women by field of study

Foreign or visa students at Canadian institutions

It has been noted that a large proportion of the doctorate degree holders in Canada obtained their education from outside the country. It is also the case that many foreign students came to Canada to obtain their education. In the 2005/2006 academic year almost one quarter (23%) of the students who earned their doctorate degree were foreign or visa students. This proportion has been unchanged over the previous three years.

The United States had a large proportion of foreign doctoral graduates. In the academic year ending in 2006, 33% of doctoral graduates in the United States were foreign or visa students, ten percentage points higher than in Canada.

There were large differences in the proportion of visa and foreign students across fields of study. For example, almost half of the graduates in engineering were foreign or visa students compared with only 15% of graduates in life sciences. Furthermore, while the proportion of foreign or visa students in general had not changed significantly in the previous two years, there has been an increase of nine percentage points in the proportion of foreign students in the social sciences since the 2003/2004 academic year, coupled with a decrease of nine percentage points in the proportion of foreign or visa students in physical sciences.

Chart 9 Proportion of visa or foreign students by field of study. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 9
Proportion of visa or foreign students by field of study

Immigration status of doctoral graduates

Foreign students may come to Canada to study as a visa or foreign student, or they may come as a landed immigrant just prior to beginning their program. Some of these students will remain in Canada upon the completion of their degree, but others will return to their country of origin. Understanding the pathways that international students take is important in light of the magnitude of the foreign born in Canada's stock of doctorate holders. Figure 1 below outlines the pathways of foreign-born graduates to doctoral studies.2

In 2005/2006 just over half of the foreign-born graduates began their program as a visa student. Eight out of twenty who were foreign born, non-visa students became a landed immigrant in Canada in the three years prior to the start of their doctoral program.

Figure 1 Pathways of foreign-born doctoral graduates. Opens a new browser window.

Figure 1
Pathways of foreign-born doctoral graduates

It is notable that over half the doctoral graduates who began their program as a visa student became a landed immigrant in Canada. This represents 14% of all graduates from the 2005/2006 academic year.

It is also interesting that 8% of non-visa foreign students became landed immigrants in Canada either in the same year that they began their doctoral program or in the three years prior to beginning their program. Thus, considering only visa or foreign students underestimates the magnitude of international students at Canadian institutions and the ability of Canadian universities to attract foreign talent into Canada.

Program length

The path to a doctorate degree can be a long road for many students. Graduates had often completed several degrees, beginning with the bachelor's level and progressing through graduate school, en route to their doctorate degree. The median doctoral graduate took 13 years, 9 months from the beginning of their first bachelor's degree to the completion of their doctorate degree. During this period, almost one third of graduates (31%) had earned at least one other degree, in addition to their first bachelor's degree and most recent master's degree. A master's degree was a prerequisite for entry into doctoral studies for two thirds (68%) of the graduates and four graduates in five had completed a master's degree prior to their doctorate.

The average length of time that graduates took to complete their doctorate program was five years and nine months, which was the same as in the previous year, but one month shorter than it had been in the 2003/2004 academic year. There were a small number of graduates who took much longer to complete their program.

Since a small number of graduates who have a long period of study may have an undue affect on the mean, the average can be a somewhat misleading measure of the typical program length. For this reason the median, which is equal to the value of the observation at the 50 percentile, is the preferred measure of program length.

The median time to completion for doctoral graduates varied across fields of study

The median length of time that doctoral graduates took to finish was five years and four months, five months shorter than the average. This was no different than the median length of time in the 2003/2004 academic year. The shortest median program was engineering, where in 2005/2006 the median length was four and one half years, four months shorter than it had been in 2003/2004. The longest median time to completion was in the social sciences, where the median time to graduate was six and one quarter years.

There were only two instances where the median time to completion had changed from the 2003/2004 academic year. In addition to engineering, graduates in a professional program saw an increase of five months in the median time to completion over the same period of time.

The length of time that graduates took to complete their studies varied considerably by fields of study. Engineering, agricultural sciences, health sciences, and physical sciences each had median program lengths that were below the overall median. Social sciences, psychology, humanities, education and professional fields had median program lengths that were above the overall median. Computer, information science and mathematics, as well as biological sciences were at the overall median time to completion.

For most graduates, time was split between course work and preparing a dissertation or a thesis. The 2005/2006 graduates spent 1.2 months working on their dissertation for every month spent doing course work. Again, there were large differences among fields of study. Graduates in engineering, a program with a low median time to completion, spent a large proportion of their time working on a dissertation or thesis (1.6 months of dissertation work for every month of course work). In contrast, graduates in the humanities averaged 0.7 months of dissertation or thesis work for each month spent doing course work.

Chart 10 Median time to completion. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 10
Median time to completion


Notes

1. Statistics Canada, Post Secondary Information System (PSIS), 1998-2005. Data is for the calendar year. The proportion of women at the doctoral level for 2005 was 43%, slightly lower than results for SED for the 2004/2005 academic year.
2. Visa or foreign students responded affirmatively to the question "When you first registered in your doctoral program, were you a visa or foreign student in Canada?." A landed immigrant refers to a graduate who has been granted the right to live in Canada permanently by immigration authorities. The graduates were asked if they had ever been a landed immigrant and the year that they became a landed immigrant. Some landed immigrants may also be Canadian citizens by naturalization.