It’s time to reduce the number of PhD students, or rethink how doctoral programs work

Redesigning the PhD in Australia is a big task. from

There are not enough academic jobs vacant in Australia each year to employ all our PhD graduates.

This imbalance risks training an increasing numbers of doctoral students on a promise that cannot be fulfilled: that is future academic employment.

We need to accept a hard truth that Australia needs to rethink the design of the PhD and the expectations around it, or radically reduce intake to doctoral programs.

In 2015, Australia graduated over 10,000 postgraduate research students – the vast majority of these were doctoral students. There were over 65,000 research higher degree students enrolled at Australian universities last year with most full or part time PhD students.

The number of PhDs in Australia will continue to grow. Enrolments in higher degrees have increased by almost half since 2001, and although much of this has been through more international doctoral students, domestic student numbers continue to grow year on year.

Most of these PhD graduates do not end up in a career of teaching or research at a university, or even teaching or research somewhere else.

There are currently over 50,000 staff employed in full-time or fixed-term academic roles in Australian universities. The number of positions vacant each year is nowhere near enough to accommodate even a small proportion of new Australia PhD graduates, let alone those who completed in prior years.

If the majority of PhD students, then, do not end up in ongoing academic employment, are designs for doctoral program right? Are student expectations realistic if they enter the degree with aspirations for a teaching and research career as many, perhaps most, do?

The Australian government recently accepted the excellent report from ACOLA on doctoral training. This looks at many of these challenges. There are broad issues related to research training and the academic workforce that the sector must now face.

Rethinking the PhD

There is a real need to think about the prospect of academic employment for PhD graduates. Much of the teaching in Australian higher education is delivered by sessional staff at universities.

Australian universities now depend on sessional teachers, short-contract researchers and other casualised and fixed-term staff to operate.

Many universities wouldn’t be viable without these staff. But for most academics, sessional employment is not a replacement for an ongoing position, offering little in the way of development of career progression.

Sessional work itself is not a problem unless it shows that many doctoral graduates find this as their only option. Or if it shows that students are being set up with unrealistic expectations of their future prospects for permanent academic employment.

We risk an unsustainable academic Ponzi scheme. This is not just an Australian trend, the US faces a similar challenge for large numbers of sessional staff.

But thinking through doctoral programs is more than just about managing PhD candidate expectations.

It is about doctoral training in a mode which combines the apprenticeship model, learning how to research, with more formal components of the other areas of learning that work in non-academic environments.

They need to be able to leverage the broad range of skills acquired through doctoral training, such as project management and strong writing skills.

Many students contribute as junior researchers to projects. This is critical to student research training and the overall research effort. However, to ensure they finish their degree with the right skills set will likely require a more diverse set of experiences and training. We need to avoid at worst viewing PhD students as a cheap research workforce.

Redesigning the PhD in Australia is a big task. It requires an ongoing discussion about enrolling such a large cohort of doctoral students who will not work in academia.

In an age of the innovation economy and government focus on thinking past the mining boom, there is much to be said for doctoral trained workers.

They are a great national resource to be celebrated, where time spent in PhD research is recognised for the skills developed beyond an area of deep expertise.

But the decisions we make now about how we train PhDs will be with Australia for a long time. If we don’t change, we need to consider training fewer of them.