This guest blogpost by piirus.ac.uk member Doug Rocks-Macqueen looks at estimated numbers to enhance our understanding of the academic job availability across the disciplines in the UK.
Academic jobs— PhD students and Early Career Researchers are told they are either handing them out like candy or that the job market is like a dystopian young adult novel in which dozens enter into a stadium/maze/wasteland and only one or two walks out. That is the contradictory information that most are told. Which is true? The answer is that it really depends on the field that you are in. For some it is much easier to break into academia than others. For those others, exploring careers outside of academia is a necessity.
What we (don’t) Know
PhD students are trained to question everything and the research methods needed to find answers to their questions. Yet, the vast majority of students are ill informed when it comes to career prospects. For careers in academia, students are often either told, ‘there are no jobs’ or ‘there are always jobs for those that are clever or work very hard’. Neither of which are particularly helpful when you are planning your future. Students are left thinking:
‘No jobs: as in like there are only five or ten jobs – or zero?’
‘How clever do I have to be, or how hard do I have to work – 45 hrs, 50 hrs, 60 hrs per week?’
A few months ago, concerned with the lack of quantitative data on job prospects in my field, I went looking for an answer. What I found was that I had a better chance of dying of cancer than getting a permanent traditional academic post at a UK University i.e. lectureship, in my field of archaeology. While undertaking that work I made some rough calculations for all fields of the number of PhDs graduated to permanent academic jobs available last year in the United Kingdom. Take a look at your field and see what the odds are in your chosen field of research:
|Subjects by HESA cost centre||Estimated Permanent Teaching and Research Staff Openings||Estimated PhDs Granted||Ratio of PhDs to jobs|
|Catering & hospitality management||28||13||0.5|
|Nursing & allied health professions||455||321||0.7|
|Art & design||321||385||1.2|
|Sports science & leisure studies||145||187||1.3|
|Social work & social policy||123||202||1.6|
|Music, dance, drama & performing arts||190||321||1.7|
|Business & management studies||742||1337||1.8|
|Economics & econometrics||139||269||1.9|
|Anatomy & physiology||50||119||2.4|
|Architecture, built environment & planning||167||440||2.6|
|Agriculture, forestry & food science||37||107||2.9|
|Politics & international studies||156||458||2.9|
|Geography & environmental studies||113||346||3.1|
|IT, systems sciences & computer software engineering||292||960||3.3|
|Health & community studies||89||311||3.5|
|Psychology & behavioural sciences||276||999||3.6|
|English language & literature||178||648||3.6|
|Pharmacy & pharmacology||80||330||4.1|
|Mechanical, aero & production engineering||188||853||4.5|
|Earth, marine & environmental sciences||127||583||4.6|
|Electrical, electronic & computer engineering||167||811||4.8|
|Anthropology & development studies||36||194||5.3|
|Theology & religious studies||39||278||7.2|
|Mineral, metallurgy & materials engineering||33||336||10.2|
Table: Estimated new positions and number of PhDs awarded by HESA cost centre subject for 2014/15
(See ‘Post-script: methods’ to read how the numbers were arrived at)
This is a rough estimate and there will be yearly fluctuations in hiring. I don’t think that there are actually fewer people getting PhDs than there are permanent academic jobs in Catering & Hospitality Management. It is probably a quirk of the lower numbers involved, although a quick search of jobs.ac.uk found several open lectureship positions for hospitality management, so that estimate won’t be far off.
Not everyone wants a career in academia. Surveys of students tell us that anywhere from 37-89% of students are interested in a job in academia, depending on the field of study. The low interest in academic careers in chemistry students (37%) improves one’s odds of getting an academic job in that field to 1 in 3 instead of 1 in 9. Still, in the majority of fields you are looking at two, three, four, or up to five new PhDs for every permanent position. If you are interested in academia as a career, then you need to take a look at this data and think long and hard about your future career.
What Should You Do?
These numbers are not meant to discourage you. Competition for jobs is probably only one factor involved in your career decisions. Maybe you have independent funding and can take your time looking for jobs. Conversely, you may need to get a job right away to pay off student loans. Each person’s situation is different.
Unless you are in a handful of fields, either choice you make – academia or a different career –requires planning. If you want to go into academia, then you need to research what skills and experiences you will need to beat the other candidates for your field. Ask the question, ‘what support will my department, advisor or University give to help me obtain the lectureship I desire?’ Is it realistic in my situation to gain the required experience and skills, to get a job over X number of other candidates? Read other people’s advice on what you need to do after you have got a PhD. Take stock of the skills you have.
The same goes for careers outside of Universities, what support will you get and what support will you need to develop the career you want? Maybe you still want a career conducting research but the competition is very high for permanent lectureship positions at Universities. In that case you need to research how others have created their Alternative-Academic (Alt-Ac) careers. What skills will you need to build an Alt-Ac career? Will it be a portfolio career? If so, then you should read other posts on the piirus.ac.uk blog to learn more like- How do you make a portfolio career work for you?
It will most likely take hard work, which ever career you decide on. Know that there are resources out there to help you and use them.
For those interested in how I got those numbers. My data is from the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA). It unfortunately, only covers the UK but other countries have their own data you can use if you want to make estimations yourself. Stripping out already established academics changing jobs, the HESA data tells us that there were 7,355 new permanent research and teaching positions (5,515 full time and 1,840 part-time) against 22,780 people getting PhDs.
An issue is that HESA does not break down PhDs granted and new positions by cost centres. To get the numbers I took the % percentages of the current workforce and PhDs in the cost centres (e.g. medical clinical makes up 6% of all staff 10% of all students) multiplied those percentages against new permanent positions and PhDs granted. I assumed that if 10% of staff where in a certain field than 10% of the new hires would be in that field too.
I wrote a paper going into much greater detail to determine that archaeology is actually worse than presented in table above. I suspect you will have to run more complicated calculations and dig a little deeper into the data to get very precise numbers for your field of work. This is a starting point!
About the author: Doug Rocks-Macqueen is a recent PhD graduate. He currently works in an Alt-Ac career for Landward Research Ltd. as Director of Analysis, Research and Technology. While his work is varied a good portion of it involves conducting Labour Market analysis – like seeing how many jobs are available and who are applying for them. You can follow him on twitter at @openaccessarch.
Image credit: Flickr user Buckaroobay, used with permission, CC BY-SA 2.0
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