Are PhD graduates expecting too much?

What should students really expect after doing a PhD? PhD image from www.shutterstock.com

When it comes to PhD graduates, it’s clear that supply now far outstrips demand. It used to be that doing a PhD almost guaranteed you an academic position but now, any guarantees are long gone.

My own experience suggests that only around half of PhD graduates are employed in some kind of academic work, even if it is part-time or casual.

But should this mean it’s time for prospective PhD students to make their expectations more reasonable? And if so, who decides what’s reasonable?

A debate we need to have

These questions seem to have been sadly neglected. In The Conversation recently, current PhD student Jenni Metcalfe wrote about the many students who finish their PhD only to discover positions and opportunities are limited: “Why did no-one tell them about the real employment situation before they started?”

But surely the problem is different. One senior academic recently wrote to me: “The problem that I am left with is that I still don’t know what PhD students should expect. We don’t really know where they go.”

The German experience could represent one useful example. Most German PhDs go out into the workforce, and many of the scientific ones going into sophisticated manufacturing industries.

Very few become professors – and the norm to become a full professor is to write another, grander thesis, the Habilitation, for another, higher degree.

So in Australia, why do PhD graduates expect to go straight into an academic job?

From few to many

It seems to have a lot to do with a legacy left over from the days when few people did a PhD.

In those days, about fifty years ago, only about 10% of the population did a university degree at all. To put this in perspective, the government is now striving for 40%.

So, in those days, the fit between PhDs and academic positions was much closer.

In the intervening years more and more people took first degrees, more and more took Masters, and more and more took PhDs. At the same time the student to academic staff ratio steadily – and sometimes not so steadily – increased.

In 1970, it was about ten or twelve students to one academic. Nowadays that number is around 20.

The nature of the population did not change – evolution is a slow process – and the top 1% of the population are just as academically bright as they ever were. Admittedly there are something like twice as many people in Australia now, but the student population has been multiplied eight times, not just twice, and that is not counting overseas students.

The nature of the education process has also, inevitably, changed.

Extra PhDs without extra jobs

First, consider the undergraduate situation. It may be élitist to talk about the “top” students, but whatever measure one may use, taking the top 40% rather than the top 10% inevitably means that the standards over the whole cohort must be lower.

So it is not unreasonable that there are many who claim, and bemoan, a decline in standards.

In my view, there has been a shift from education to training in our universities. I have no problem with sending well-trained people out into the workforce – it benefits the country. What I do have a problem with is the assumption that all 40% should be capable of the same level as the top 10%.

Now consider the PhD cohort. The number of such students has also risen, both as a proportion of first-degree numbers and also because of overseas student numbers. In particular, a far greater proportion of the Australian population takes a PhD than in the 1970s.

Academic positions have not increased at the same rate. So now the Australian PhD graduate faces more competition, from fellow Australians as well as overseas graduates.

The universities, despite the efforts of their careers officers, have failed to provide appropriate direction to their PhD graduates and they cannot provide employment opportunities for all the present PhD graduates. Business and industry, not forgetting government, which is a large employer, must also take responsibility for not taking on those with PhDs.

The complaint that someone is “over qualified” does not wash. If someone wants a job, and is prepared to work at a certain level, then there is certainly a question of appropriate remuneration, but that should be for the work done, not just the qualifications held.

Finally, universities haven’t been clear about what a qualification stands for. The PhD is differentiated only by the supervisor(s), the reports of the examiners and the standard of the institution where it was obtained.

It is not simply a question of having a PhD that makes one a leader but the education that was received in the process of getting that PhD.

What next?

So what are the solutions? One need is for greater awareness, on the parts of both universities and government, business and industry, of the merits of having a PhD.

And that the skills inculcated are transferable: the study of one particular species, or one kind of material, or one style of theory should make the PhD graduate able to apply the skills learned to other areas.

Secondly, there is a need for a differentiation of PhD quality. This is already under way, even though many academics do not like it.

At the moment, this is being done by rankings but of course most rankings, when examined closely, are unreliable – the main temptation is to look only at items for which one can give a number. However, they evolve over time and few would disagree with the relative rankings of institutions they know, provided they are not ranked close together.

Throughout my career (guiding over twenty PhD students to graduate) I have always recommended that people only do a PhD if there is nothing they would rather do.

Economic imperatives intrude on this nowadays, but if students knew what to expect after their PhD, surely that would help. We cannot stand by like Miss Havisham and put the responsibility on others.

It is our responsibility as academics – though government, business and industry also have an important role – to help PhD graduates understand find their path.