One of the key reasons for doing a a doctoral research degree or PhD is to pursue an academic career. But this dream is becoming increasingly far-fetched, due to a decline in academic positions and a steady increase in Australians undertaking PhDs.
The number of PhD completions has been steadily growing over the past two decades, from about 4,000 to about 10,000 per year.
According to our calculations* based on the information available, the cumulative number of people in Australia with a PhD has increased from about 135,000 in 2016 to about 185,000 in 2021.
But the number of academic positions has shrunk. Australia saw a significant decrease in academic staff from 54,086 in 2016 to 46,971 in 2021 as universities cut costs during the pandemic.
As the Universities Accord review examines how our higher education system needs to work, we need to rethink who is doing a PhD and how their degrees are structured.
Why has the number of PhDs grown?
There are plenty of incentives to keep PhD candidates coming through the system. Some federal government funding to universities is based on research degree completions. PhDs are also free for domestic students.
On top of this, universities put pressure on academic staff to supervise successful PhD students. This is used as one of the criteria for promotions.
Where do PhD graduates go?
There is no official data on how many PhD graduates go on to work in academia. About 25% of PhD graduates got some employment in academia according to a small-scale survey in 2011.
Our estimates suggest this figure has not changed much as of 2021. If there are about 185,000 people with a PhD, this is four times higher than the number of available academic positions (46,971).
We also know some PhD students struggle to get work outside of academia, despite the prestigious nature of their qualifications.
The 2022 Graduate Outcomes Survey found 84.7% of research degree graduates (which includes masters degrees by research as well as PhDs) were in full-time employment within six months of completing their studies. This compares with 78.5% of undergraduates.
Where do PhDs want to work?
It is true not all PhD candidates and graduates want an academic career.
A 2019 national survey found 51% of all PhD students surveyed wanted to find a job in business or the public sector.
But here, students’ field of study makes a big difference.
Two-thirds of PhD students in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) were hoping to work in industry. The banking, civil engineering, mining, energy and medical/pharmaceutical sectors are the top employers of PhD graduates.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of PhD students in social sciences (including history, politics, education, sociology, psychology, economics, and anthropology) wanted to stay in academia.
To understand how people with social sciences PhDs navigate employment, we conducted 23 in-depth interviews with doctoral graduates from five Australian universities. All interviewees graduated less than five years before the interviews.
Our research uncovered two distinct themes.
1. A stable academic job is almost impossible to find
Of the group, only one had gained a continuing academic position within five years of graduation. Thirteen were on precarious contracts (either casual or fixed-term) while three were doing a “postdoc” or research fellowship (which are also often a fixed-term contract). Six worked in either the private sector or government.
As one interviewee told us:
[PhD candidates should] put aside the assumption that […] because you’ve got a PhD, you will automatically get a job. That’s not the case. There are many many many PhDs out there who cannot find work or are working in what we call menial jobs or ‘survivor’ jobs.
Another emphasised the insecure nature of working in academia:
I’ve been working as a sessional [employed on contracts per semester] in higher education, basically full-time on a million contracts.
Some participants moved in and out of academia while holding a slim hope of finding a continuing position:
If I don’t get an academic job within one year or two years, then it’s kind of over for me […].
2. There is not enough career support or preparation
While ongoing academic jobs were very difficult to obtain, PhD graduates said they were not well-prepared for the labour market outside academia.
There is a sharp contrast between university and non-university occupations in terms of workplace cultures and employer expectations. For example, industry employers want skills needed for work rather than qualifications or publications. PhD graduates moving out of academia have had to re-train themselves.
As one participant told us:
They were less impressed by the publications. They were more interested in the skills that I got. […] So I did some online data courses [like] LinkedIn courses, and then I tried to apply for some jobs with these skills and in this direction.
Another participant said they had to hide their doctoral degree for fear of being seen as overqualified. Meanwhile, meaningful career advice was thin on the ground.
[My university] didn’t actually do anything to support me in getting my job.
How to rethink doctoral education
The diverse and insecure employment outcomes of the PhD graduates in our study strongly point to a need for universities to rethink how they educate PhD students.
Firstly, this includes offering specific career education as part of PhD programs. This may require universities to be upfront about the employment prospects for PhD graduates and research funding climate.
Career consultations from both universities’ career centres and industry experts should be offered early in PhD programs to help students make informed decisions about future options. For those who would like to pursue a traditional academic career, it is important to have ongoing career guidance from their supervisors and research offices.
Secondly, there needs to be more structured work experience. Universities should strengthen their partnerships with industry to facilitate work experience. Those seeking academic jobs also need to be provided with meaningful opportunities to work alongside academic staff in both teaching activities and research projects.
Thirdly, universities need to ensure doctoral programs better prepare students for employment possibilities inside and outside academia.
This includes opportunities to build transferable skills such as teamwork, communication, analytical skills, and leadership.
This specifically needs to include teaching students how to write and speak for different audiences beyond academia, including policymakers and the public.
This needs to include admissions
Lastly, we also need to take a hard look at PhD admissions. There is currently no limit on PhD numbers and the more admissions universities have, the more funding they will earn when students graduate.
To balance supply and demand, the government should consider quotas for funding PhD students in each field. This would also help select the most suitable PhD candidates, who are most likely to benefit from the rigours of doctoral study.
This may not be a popular move – but we have be more realistic about whether accepting more and more people into three-plus years of intense study is benefiting the students, or simply generating funds for universities.
Author Bios: Binh Ta is a Lecturer, Hang Khong is a Teaching Associate, Faculty of Education, Trang Thi Doan Dang is a Teaching Associate all at Monash University and Sam Hoang who is a Research Officer at Victoria University