PhDs prove relatively recession-proof

Survey finds median wages and employment rates are holding steady

May 2, 2013

Source: Alamy

How high? Postdoctoral researchers earn more by staying in higher education

Postdoctoral researchers working in higher education are now earning more than their peers outside the sector, a study has suggested.

Graduates who completed their PhD in 2006-07 and were working full time in university research in 2010 earned an average of £32,000 a year compared with a figure of £31,000 for those working in research outside higher education, the report by Vitae, the careers organisation for researchers, found.

The equivalent survey from 2008, also by Vitae, which tracked graduates who completed their PhDs in 2004-05, found the reverse to be the case, with researchers from outside higher education earning more than those within it.

The results reflect a deliberate effort within higher education to improve the lot of early-career academics, said Robin Mellors-Bourne, director of research and intelligence at Vitae.

After the introduction in 2008 of the “Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers” - an agreement between the funders and employers of researchers in the UK - many research posts were regraded and given correspondingly higher salaries, Dr Mellors-Bourne said.

The favourable results for higher education may also reflect that the recession had a more negative impact on the private sector up to 2010, he added.

“Where there was the perception that perhaps the grass was greener outside, that difference may have been eroded,” Dr Mellors-Bourne said. “The next question has to be, has this improvement continued or tailed off?”

What do researchers do? Early career progression of doctoral graduates, published on 2 May, is the first study to look at the impact of the early stages of the recession on doctoral graduates. It suggests that the PhD has been more “recession-proof” than other qualifications, according to Dr Mellors-Bourne.

Although unemployment rates for doctoral graduates rose slightly between 2008 and 2010 (from 1.7 to 2.4 per cent), the median salary - already high compared with those holding lesser qualifications - rose in line with the overall UK labour market. Meanwhile, earnings for good first degree or master’s graduates fell relative to overall wages.

The study tracked more than 2,500 PhD graduates from 2006-07 using data from the longitudinal Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, carried out by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The figures show that the median salary of doctoral graduates working in higher education, in both research and teaching, increased by around 5 per cent between 2008 and 2010.

The highest-earning group overall was made up of graduates in the biomedical sciences working in “other common doctoral occupations” outside universities, who earned a median salary of £44,000.

Towards the other end of the scale, arts and humanities graduates employed in higher education research three-and-a-half years after achieving their doctorate earned an average of less than £30,000. Indeed, outcomes for arts and humanities graduates appear to have been most affected by changes in the labour market between 2008 and 2010.

Compared with other disciplines, the survey found that average earnings fell slightly for the 2010 cohort, compared with peers surveyed in 2008. In addition, a higher proportion of them were working in part-time employment, employed on fixed-term contracts or working multiple jobs.

Arts and humanities students were, however, more likely to report that their doctoral degree experience had enhanced their quality of life, and their social and intellectual capabilities beyond employment.

Dr Mellors-Bourne cautioned against overinterpreting the outcomes for arts and humanities graduates as they were more likely to be both at a later stage in their careers and older than peers in other subjects.

For more information on the report, visit Vitae.

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