Research jobs growth ‘going gangbusters’ – but not in universities

Australian study finds good prospects for research degree graduates, so long as they look beyond academia

February 22, 2024
Tumbleweed blows across a desert highway

Opportunities for researchers are growing around 10 times as quickly outside Australian academia as within, an analysis of job advertisements suggests.

An Australian National University study has found that the average tally of positions on offer in higher education has risen by just 8 per cent since the pandemic, reflecting a “fairly anaemic few years” for the sector. Meanwhile, the number of “high research intensity” jobs outside academia has skyrocketed by 79 per cent.

Co-author Will Grant said the findings were “heart-warming” despite disappointing jobs growth in universities. “There is a continued shift towards demand for researchers throughout the Australian economy, and I think that’s a really beneficial thing," he said.

“I would say to my PhD students, ‘don’t expect to work in a university’. There are…great jobs in universities but they’re not growing at the same rate that we see in the wider economy. You might start doing robotics or cognitive psychology and realise, ‘there are a range of places outside the university that really want me’. You’re doing real research because they want the results, as opposed to…maybe just a paper mill.”

The analysis found big variations between disciplines, with academic opportunities growing quite strongly in areas including agriculture, education, environmental sciences and indigenous studies. But job offerings had fallen sharply in economics along with computing, mathematical and physical sciences.

Outside academia, research job advertisements had increased in 46 of 50 industry sectors. Dr Grant, an associate professor at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, noted particularly strong growth in areas such as childcare and residential aged services.

While overall researcher numbers in childcare were still low, providers had recognised a need to improve their understanding of childhood development so they could structure their services accordingly. “That’s not the kind of thing that I assume would lead to a traditional publication or anything like that,” said Dr Grant. “But I think that’s a great news story.”

He said operators in aged care, where workforce shortages were acute, were investigating the use of robotics to handle manual functions such as cleaning and changing beds. “These are sectors that are absolutely looking at how research can solve some of their problems. Knowing more about all the aspects of your business – and that’s what research is – can be a massive advantage.”

The analysis found that research jobs in computing science had declined by about one-quarter in academia while growing by one-eighth in the broader economy. Dr Grant said universities’ lacklustre investment research in computer science and economics was difficult to explain, but could reflect more partnerships with industry.

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