What are your post PhD job prospects, 2 years into the pandemic?


As regular readers will know, I am a working researcher with an interest in post PhD employability. For nearly 10 years now my research focus has been on job advertisements for researchers. this post is a detailed update on the academic and non-academic job market, 2 years into the pandemic.

If you don’t want to read a whole blog post, you can download our latest report or come along to our public lecture on the 23rd of March at 7pm AEDT. I hope you’ll stick with the blog post though!

As data, job advertisements are fascinating because they are a wish list from an employer for a person who probably doesn’t exist. By looking closely at job ad texts, and counting the ads themselves, you can get a good idea of the size and extent of a job market. Job ads also tell you what kind of person employers are looking for: their skills, capabilities and attitudes. As an educator, it’s possible to work backwards from job ads to what you teach in the classroom. Of course, universities shouldn’t just teach what employers want – but we shouldn’t ignore them either. I use my research on job ad data to inform the content in my writing and presentation workshops and to help ANU decide what kind of professional development it offers to candidates.

My early work on academic job ads was done in collaboration with Dr Rachael Pitt, resulting in my most downloaded (and cited) paper Academic Superheroes. Since 2017 I have collaborated with ANU colleagues A/Prof Hanna Suominen and A/Prof Will Grant looking at non-academic job ads through the PostAc project.

We’ve even released an app: PostAc is a job searching platform designed just for researchers. We use machine learning and natural language processing to analyse large data sets – and by large I mean millions of job ads – to see what different industries might be looking for researchers. With the processing power of the technology underpinning the PostAc app, we can produce visualisations of each industry job distribution ‘finger print’. The one below is of manufacturing, transport and logistics using every job from Seek.com in 2015:

We rank the job ads from zero – no research skills required, to ten – super nerdy jobs where you are asked to do a lot of knowledge creation. Manufacturing, transport and logistics shows a segmented industry with truck drivers at one end (no research skills required) to office personnel and technicians in the middle of the scale (users of research, but not creators) and a small, but growing ‘rump’ of jobs past our PhD level cut off. When we look more closely at these jobs we see lots of 3D printing, robotics and AI jobs.

Each industry is different; manufacturing, transport and logistics looks this way because it has specific industry challenges. I like to use the example of Amazon. They used to have warehouses full of people, but they invested in robotics to speed up the process of fulfilling orders and now they need people to design and maintain the robots. Lots of these jobs are suitable for people with degrees in areas like computer science, heavy on quantitative skills. But even Amazon has a need for people doing qualitative research. For example, one of the Amazon jobs in our database is for a ‘channel marketing manager’, who uses the data collected by people browsing the platform, interviews and surveys to work out why people buy certain books.

The strength of our approach is we are trans-disciplinary. Our algorithm looks for a certain type of person implied in the ads, not the job duties or key words. This approach means we can scan the whole job market for opportunities, not just data science jobs.

One of the things we have been doing with our PostAc technology is measuring the job market at intervals throughout the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, in March and April 2020, the total number of ads posted suddenly fell. Employers taking jobs off the market because they were uncertain of the business environment resulted in a ‘covid cliff’:

This period of uncertainty lasted through the first lock down in Australia, but a strong recovery followed where the number of research intensive jobs doubled, or more, in some industries. One of the strongest areas of growth was supermarkets, which bucked the downward trend and went up while everything else went down. If you think about what we were doing during the pandemic, this makes sense. Our shopping habits have changed dramatically to online purchases. As a result, retailers have a treasure trove of data about what we buy. It’s no wonder they are looking for people who can make sense of data.

Unfortunately, the lockdowns in the second half of 2021 resulted in a decline in research jobs outside of academia, with the situation at Christmas time looking like a return to ‘normal’, pre pandemic levels seen in 2019. We’re not sure if this is just a normal Christmas slow down or a softening of the job market more generally. We will keep monitoring to see if there is any bounce back, now that the first omicron surge seems to have slowed down.

I want to point out that ‘normal’ 2019 levels of research oriented jobs in industry still dwarfs the number of jobs available in academia at any time in the same period. There were well over 30,000 jobs suitable for researchers in July/August 2021. By contrast, there were around 1000 academic jobs going in universities at the same time. The academic job market had the same kind of covid cliff as the non academic jobs, but a much more modest recovery:

To add to our woes, the academic jobs on offer in 2021 were more precarious than ever before. While there were still post doc positions in areas with strong research funding, such as health and biomedical science, there was little to no growth in permanent positions in other fields. Some disciplines, like philosophy, remain very depressed. If you look at the 2019 figures, it was always hard to be an academic philosopher:

A ‘good year’ in philosophy and religious studies was 24 jobs; the last two years there has been around 6 positions advertised a year. Some fields have a strong postdoc market (shown in yellow), while others have more permanent jobs on offer. These permanent jobs tend to require more experience, so they are not really suitable for people straight out of the PhD.

So where does this leave you, a PhD student or graduate looking at your job options post PhD?

Frankly, at least in academia, I think it depends on what field you are seeking to enter. Academic fields with a healthy government grant spend, like biomedical and clinical sciences, have many more entry level opportunities than, for example, economics, where the government perceives we need less investment. Areas where there is a large demand for teaching undergraduates, such as business and IT, have more opportunities than more niche areas of science, like earth sciences or even chemistry.

The trick to establishing an academic career is to be ‘well rounded’ – to show strengths in both teaching and research. Along with these two big guns, you need to show knowledge of how higher education works so that you can be a useful committee member, or hold a role like first year convenor. Becoming well rounded takes time and access to the ‘behind the scenes’ work of academia. Therefore, the way into an academic career will look quite different depending on what kind of discipline area you aspire to work in.

Where there is a well established market for post docs and early career researchers, such as physical science, it’s potentially easier to find a post PhD foothold in academia. If you can secure a series of short term contracts to continue researching, you have the chance to pick up extra teaching and service experience that makes you an attractive hire. You still need a healthy dose of luck and good connections in a discipline like physical sciences, but with a full time wage beneath your wings, you’re in a position to segue into an ongoing position with a mix of teaching and research.

In those discipline areas with a less established postdoc job market, like architecture, literature and history, the options to continue an academic career will be limited. For the most part, there will only be casual teaching on offer – which pays a good hourly rate, but presents you with long gaps where you are not paid at all. Casual teaching keeps you connected to academia, but does not really give you the space, time and resources to keep up a research career. When you are not paid for half the year it’s really difficult to write the books and papers that will make you an attractive long term hire. Unless you are independently wealthy, or bankrolled by your partner (like I was), transitioning into a full time academic career is just incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

There are so many equity issues that are not openly discussed in academia. We all know it’s tough to become an academic, but we need to be clear that privilege and life choices can intersect in complex ways. Some people really do start closer to the finish line and that advantage may have started all the way back in the undergraduate years, with a decision to follow a career in business or IT. On the upside, some academic areas, such as architecture, communication studies and nursing, really value professional experience in their teaching staff. Spending some time outside of the university may not be the one way trip you imagine, with a return to academia totally possible. Although who knows – from what I hear life outside academia is pretty sweet and many people are happy they made the choice to leave.

We hope that the PostAc app will give people a way to explore the options that lie outside of academia. Our new version enables you to view jobs available right now, as well as an archive of old jobs for research purposes. You can see a demo of how the product works on postac.com.au. Full access to the product is only available to university subscribers – try to make an account using your university email address to see if your university has an account. If your university doesn’t subscribe, you can fill in our survey here and we will approach them on your behalf.

If you’d like to hear me and my colleagues talk about this work, we’re giving a public lecture on the 23rd of March, 7pm AEDT – you can register for the free lecture here. If you are working in a university and interested in purchasing the product, you can see more information on our PostAc page here.

If you’re entering the job market – good luck! I’m continuing to work on PostAc, with the intention of turning it into a not for profit company inside ANU that can sustain the research work on an ongoing basis. Stay tuned!