UK PhD students’ academic career hopes out of step with job market

Most doctoral candidates show ‘clear preference’ for academic career despite high exit levels from sector, finds Higher Education Policy Institute study

July 16, 2020
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Two-thirds of UK-based PhD students intend to pursue a career in academic research even though most doctoral degree recipients leave academia within three and a half years, a study has found.

Drawing on previously unpublished data from a Nature survey in 2019, the report by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that those doing doctoral degrees in UK universities had a “clear preference” for an academic career, with 67 per cent saying they were “very likely” or “likely” to pursue this option after graduation.

The report, which is based on responses from 526 doctoral degree candidates, observed that 70 per cent of PhD graduates had left academia within three and a half years, according to the latest longitudinal data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

About a quarter (23 per cent) of PhD students said they were “very likely” to pursue a research career in industry, while 41 per cent said this option was “likely”.

Students were also open to other options: 51 per cent said they might seek a research role in government or the non-profit sector, 40 per cent mentioned medical research and 24 per cent had considered taking a non-research role in academia.

Some 81 per cent of PhD students believed that their doctorate had prepared them well for a research career, but only 33 per cent said it had prepared them well for a non-research career, according to the study, PhD Students and their Careers. Some 47 per cent insisted that their PhD had made them suitable for a career that straddled academia and industry.

Bethan Cornell, the report’s author who is currently studying for a PhD in physics, said the report’s findings were “encouraging” because they showed that “PhD students are positive about their career prospects” and that “the PhD experience doesn’t seem to negatively affect the proportion of students wishing to stay in research”.

“However, it is concerning to find that, while PhD students may be getting good technical training, they do not feel supported in many other key skills they will need to gain a successful academic career, such as managing people, dealing with budgets and applying for funding,” said Ms Cornell, who added that it was “discouraging that PhD students are more likely to seek one-to-one careers advice from their supervisors than from trained careers consultants, who are better placed to help them.”

Nick Hillman, the director of Hepi, said it was “vital that, as a society, we look after our researchers, and that includes making sure they have access to the careers support they need to find the best possible role for them”.

Highlighting how some respondents had said they might leave academia for reasons including “lack of job security”, “mental health” and “a poor work-life balance”, the University and College Union’s general secretary, Jo Grady, said universities must do more to address these issues.

“Even though academia is PhD students’ number one career choice, 70 per cent have left the sector within three and a half years,” said Dr Grady.

“Universities need to make sure that higher education remains an attractive career choice; but insecure contracts, low pay and long hours leave staff facing mental health issues and struggling to pay the bills,” she added, highlighting a UCU report last year that found that seven in 10 university staff said their mental health had been damaged by working on insecure contracts.

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Reader's comments (3)

Surely this is no surprise as in most walks of life outside academia, a PhD does not offer any significant career advantage. Therefore, most of us complete them for reasons of interest and to be challenged. In my own field of engineering, there seem to be no other reasons to complete a research degree so I hardly ever supervise a home student.
This is a narrow view of what a PhD is - it is not just a demonstration of research capability, it is also a demonstration of a person's intelligence, innovation, creativity, perseverance, knowledge etc... at a high level. A person with a PhD need not venture into academia nor research oriented careers. Their PhD capabilities could be utilised in policy making and strategy formulation in other occupations.
Does research in Universities (and everywhere else) need more research? Budgets for research continue to increase and more people are doing it but how valuable is it? Publicly (tax payer) funded research needs to "prove" the money being spent benefits society in comparison to other publicly funded activity. Would the money spent on University research be better spent on building more and better housing? How is the money spent on medical research to be evaluated with funds spent on social science research or economic research? The impact of Covid 19 is likely to result in the Government taking a much closer look at the perceived benefits of research and the public too, if we are to be faced with cuts and higher taxes.