Australian PhD students target careers outside academia

Trend reflects growing gap between PhD completions and academic job availability

April 30, 2019
Businessman holding contract of employment

Most Australian PhD graduates now aspire to careers outside academia, as doctoral completions grow far more quickly than universities’ capacity to absorb them.

An Australian study, based on a survey completed by almost 450 doctoral students from 32 Australian universities and a handful of overseas institutions, found that slightly more than half of doctoral candidates plan to work outside traditional research institutions.

Eighteen per cent nominated large corporations as their go-to employers, with 14 per cent targeting government agencies. Another 9 per cent said they wanted to work in start-ups or small or medium-sized enterprises; 7 per cent aspired to not-for-profit research organisations; and 5 per cent wanted to be self-employed or were undecided.

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), which produced the report with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Data61 division, said the changing employment focus reflected a lack of traditional research positions. It said PhD graduate numbers had overtaken academic job openings in the mid-1990s, with the gap progressively widening.

“PhD completions have risen from 4,000 to 10,000 annually since 2001 while industry demand is growing for specialist research capability,” said co-author Maaike Wienk, an AMSI analyst.

The researchers also crunched data from the social media site LinkedIn, focusing on almost 68,000 Australian users listing doctoral qualifications in their profiles – thought to account for about half of Australia’s PhD graduates.

The data suggested that about 52 per cent worked in academia or publicly funded research, with 23 per cent in business and 24 per cent in government or non-profit organisations.

A more detailed analysis of 167 randomly selected doctoral graduates produced similar results.

The study found that the medical sector employed more PhD graduates than any other industry. Hospitals and public health organisations claimed the largest share of doctoral graduates in the public sector, while the pharmaceutical industry comprised the third biggest employer of those in private enterprise.

The top business employers featured banking, finance and insurance companies, followed by mining, oil and energy corporations. They included Australia’s four biggest banks, mining giants such as BHP and Rio Tinto and multinational consultancies such as KPMG, PwC, EY and McKinsey and Company.

Co-author Paul McCarthy, a Data61 consultant and adjunct professor at UNSW Sydney, said demand was also growing in newer industries such as niche software and driverless car development.

“Our project unearthed environmental goods and services and media services and technology as emerging sectors with high-growth firms employing PhD graduates,” he said. “There are significant opportunities ahead for PhDs within young, global start-ups and innovative Australian employers.”

While business and government take-up of Australian PhD graduates is growing, the country still lags well behind Denmark and the Netherlands, where 30 per cent or less of doctoral graduates work in academia. In the US and the UK, the proportion is closer to 45 per cent.

Somewhat predictably, Australian doctoral graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines proved more likely to work in business and government than their counterparts in the humanities. The analysis found that 52 per cent of PhD-qualified engineers worked outside academia, compared with 23 per cent of anthropologists and sociologists.

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