In our previous post we looked at hyper-competition for permanent research careers in academia. While only a small proportion of PhD qualified candidates will end up in academia, this seems to be the most obvious career path for doctoral students. Some figures suggest that as many as 80% of candidates studying towards a PhD aspire to an academic career1.
With policies such as those of the European Commission, which see the investment in research and innovation as the key to economic growth, the numbers of PhD qualified graduates will continue to rise. Yet, the rise in academic jobs is not keeping pace, so what does this mean for this highly qualified workforce? The good news is that the unemployment level among PhD qualified professionals is low, particularly for those in STEM subjects2. What is less known is where these candidates go and how they get there?
Career destinations outside academia
New research is slowly starting to emerge, shedding some much needed light onto the career destinations of the majority of researchers. A recently published paper which examined the responses from more than 25,000 U.S. scientists and engineers suggests that only 10% leave their field, 30% work in a job only partially related to their field, but most significantly 50% start their own business3. Out of this group of leavers, only 22% did so as a result of not being able to find a job within their field.
A month ago another report surfaced, this time investigating non-academic career paths of doctoral graduates in Europe and from across a wider variety of academic fields4. Vitae, a UK based program aimed at supporting the professional development of researchers, surveyed over 800 respondents who transitioned into careers outside of academia. Whilst the majority still remain partially connected to research, the sectors in which they worked ranged from HE (27%), life sciences, public administration, charities/third sector, manufacturing, health/social work, publishing, consulting, finance, business, IT, media, non-HE education and energy.
However, Vitae respondents emphasise the complexity of the challenges doctoral graduates face when transitioning out of academia. These challenges include internal feelings of loss of identity or failure, as the majority aspired to an academic career. However, perhaps more puzzling was deciding where to go, what to do instead and then identifying transferable competencies.
When it comes to the skills match, a concern among employers is that the knowledge and skills of employees with PhDs can be overly specialised5. Employers in industry indicate that their expectations are not being met, in terms of the skills and attributes they require. What’s more worrying, perhaps, is that the same is true of employers in the higher education sector:
“The extent to which employers expect recent PhD graduates in their organisation to possess various attributes/skills was examined and compared to the level they reported observing these same skills and attributes in graduates. This revealed that employers’ expectations were consistently not being met. Interestingly, this mismatch was also true for university-sector employers, indicating that they did not seem to view PhD graduates as being ‘work ready’ for academia.”6
This idea that PhD graduates are not adequately prepared for the job market, especially within industry, is echoed by a recent European Commission report on research and innovation. Only 22% of respondents to a public consultation on the European Research Area Framework thought that researchers are well trained for jobs in the private sector7.
Encouragingly there is work being done to strengthen links between researchers in academia and industry. These include joint research projects, research traineeships in companies and industry-focused PhD programmes8. Identifying these opportunities and providing support to early career researchers to bridge the different sectors is an area where more work is needed.
We see a role for piirus.ac.uk and jobs.ac.uk in supporting researchers in their transition from academia into industry. We’re keen to find out about the perspectives of potential employers; what skills are they looking for and why might they be likely to seek out or avoid employees with PhDs?
Career pathways survey
We are conducting a survey with our partners, jobs.ac.uk, on career pathways for people with PhDs. We want to hear your experience of career paths within and outside academia.
We want to hear from you whether you’re currently doing doctoral research, or have completed your PhD. We’re gathering views from researchers at all stages in their career and from any sector.
By taking this survey, you can help us to understand the variety of careers that exist and inform how jobs.ac.uk can help to support your job seeking and career.
- Vitae (2016) What do research staff do next?
- Conor O’Carroll (2015) Research Excellence in Europe.
- Sell Stenard, B. (2016) Scientists Working Outside Their Fields Are More Likely to Become Entrepreneurs. Harvard Business Review.
- Vitae, Op cit
- Manathunga, C et al (2012) Evaluating industry-based doctoral research programs: perspectives and outcomes of Australian Cooperative Research Centre graduates. Studies in Higher Education, 37:7
- European Commission (2012) Public consultation on the Preliminary Report European Research Area Framework: Preliminary Report.
- European Commission (2014) DG Research and Innovation, Researchers’ Report 2014.