By Jonathan Malloy and Loleen Berdahl

Department chairs are uniquely positioned organizational leaders who enjoy capacity to initiate critical department conversations on PhD careers. They also have a high-level awareness of the challenges and issues involved. For this reason, in 2016 we conducted an online survey of the chairs of the 20 departments offering political science PhD programs in Canada, as part of our ongoing research on PhD student doctoral professional development. All 20 chairs responded, and their responses provide important insights into how political science departments are responding to the growing interest in doctoral professional development.

 Chairs overwhelmingly noted they are aware that the tenure-track academic job market is challenging. And we found a strong thirst for change among at least some chairs. In their own words:

  •  “We can’t predict who will succeed in the academic job market in advance, and it would be foolish to speculate – so we should anticipate that a job outside academia is a strong likelihood for all of our students. If we start there, then what does that mean for how we design our PhD programs?”
  •  “Most PhD students will have a career outside the academic job market – let’s integrate that reality in the classroom!”
  • “Departments must alter or change their narratives regarding program goals to correspond to [the] reality of opportunities for PhDs”.

 We asked chairs “If you could tell students in Canadian political science PhD programs one thing about preparing for future careers, what would it be?” The chairs’ primary direct message to students is one of flexibility to consider the broad array of options. Comments include “The world needs PhDs – even if they don’t work in the academy” and “There is a challenging, fulfilling, and rewarding professional life outside the academic job market.”  Chairs used remarkably similar language to urge students to be prepared for different options: “focus on keeping options open,” “Keep open-minded,” and “Be prepared to be flexible!”

 We also asked chairs to speak in their leadership role about what messages they wish to send – and hopefully do send – to PhD supervisors. The key chairs’ message to supervisors is one of openness to support students toward a diverse array of options:

  •  “Ask students more clearly about their own aspirations and be open to what they say.”
  •  “Be open to your students and their abilities and interests.”
  • “Talk to students about their prospects early and develop different contingency plans. Pay attention to the professional needs of your students and be a good mentor, whatever these needs are.”
  • “Do not use the word ‘placement’ which always implies either you find a job in an academic institution or you fail/don’t exist. I prefer the term transition into work, whatever that job might be from graduate school.”

 Finally, we asked chairs what messages they wanted to send to universities, and this time the primary message was one ofcollaboration. A key issue for chairs was how to coordinate and integrate resources and programs for PhD career development across the university, and some expressed frustration at duplication and gaps due to insufficient communication and cooperation:

  •   “Work more closely with units to coordinate efforts and ensure units know what resources are available for their students. Figure out the division of labour here so that we can all work together.“ 
  •  “In most cases, individual departments are not resourceful enough to provide everything that PhD students need to prepare for careers, so universities should invest creatively into resources (workshops, programs) that multiple departments can access.  Instead of defining those resources from top-down, though, they need to go to the departments and find out what the needs are, and maintain continuous communication with departments.”  
  •  “Don’t download these responsibilities onto Departments. Centralize the teaching of non-discipline specific skills.”

 Overall, department chairs expressed strong awareness and interest in PhD career development issues. And while they stressed the importance of flexibility and personal agency for students, they also acknowledged the crucial role of supervisors in setting the tone and supporting flexible options for students. Some chairs also expressed openness to changing program curricula and structures. And chairs noted significant challenges in coordinating resources and programming between the unit- and university-levels and said these were not aligned as well as they would like.

 Chairs bring unique organizational perspectives, and we are currently building on these as part of our SSHRC Insight research on political science PhD career development issues. In 2018, working with Lisa Young from the University of Calgary, we conducted a survey of faculty, and our research will soon expand to include student surveys and focus groups. As we believe there is a strong common interest in building our discipline’s capacity and commitment to PhD career development, we will continue to share findings with the Canadian political science community through Praxis, CPSA presentations, and journal articles.


 Jonathan Malloy and Loleen Berdahl are the coauthors of Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, 2018). Jonathan is Professor and former chair of the Department of Political Science at Carleton University, where he has taught since receiving his PhD after brief forays into the Ontario legislature and government. He is also the incoming Bell Chair in Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton. Follow him on Twitter (@jonathanmalloy), where he tweets about parliamentary affairs, university administration, and other random things. Loleen is Professor and Head of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. After completing her PhD, she worked for ten years in the nonprofit think tank world. She is also on Twitter (@loleen_berdahl), where she tweets about political science, higher education, and academic writing and work-life balance, and occasionally posts photos of her cat.