It would appear we’re a little conflicted about the number of PhDs we produce in Canada:

But even figuring out how many grad students there are in a particular field at a particular time is harder than I would have thought.

In my associate dean graduate job, figuring out how many grad students we have in the faculty of science isn’t that difficult because I know the right admin person to ask. There are always complications, like whether students on leave should be counted, how do you count part-time students, etc. But I can tell you to within a few people how many grad students are in each program at my university. Without the access to internal data, anybody could get a guesstimate by looking at public department webpages and counting people listed in a directory. It’s a guesstimate only since such directories are not always updated regularly.

Try and figure out how many grad students there are in a particular field across Canada, though, and things get a lot more difficult. You could do the same count-people-listed-on-webpage thing for every university in the country but that would be tedious. Hunting around Statistics Canada’s website didn’t turn up anything for me, although I think I somewhere have seen stats for 2011 which break things down into “physical and life sciences” and “mathematical and computational sciences”.

Another approach might be to look at the membership of scientific societies, like CASCA for astronomy or CSC for chemistry, although a quick glance at the websites of those organizations doesn’t turn up actual membership numbers, and they’d be lower limits since not all students join the societies. Things would be even worse in a field like biology, where there are quite a few different societies. (The situation seems to be better in the US, where I was able to turn up data on Physics PhDs and Mathematics PhDs pretty quickly; I didn’t check for all fields.)

Still another approach would be to count NSERC scholarship winners in individual fields, and scale by the fraction of students you think get scholarships. But of course the results would depend highly on that fraction, which likely varies by field.

So why, I wonder, are we not so good at counting grad students in Canada? Are we just too busy? Do we not want to know how many there are, because then we would know if we had too many or not enough? Is the competition for students so keen that it’s an advantage if your rivals don’t know how many students you have? What would we do differently if we had the data?