Postgrads pinpoint study gaps

April 17, 1998

Nearly half of former PhD students believe their research training should have been more structured, while four out of ten research council postgraduates would have liked more training to prepare them for employment, a new survey reveals.

The survey, conducted on behalf of the Office of Science and Technology, the research councils and the Royal Society, shines light on the career structure and progress of more than 1,500 former research council postgraduates, who either completed research degrees or advanced courses such as masters in 1987-88 or 1988-89.

The survey attempts to calculate the individual and wider benefits of postgraduate education ten years on, as well as the effectiveness of the education in preparing students for work.

Some 42 per cent said their postgraduate study was "very important" to employers, while only 3 per cent said it was "not at all important".

A third of those questioned thought their postgraduate study had been "very well" supervised, while 43 per cent thought it "quite well" supervised, 14 per cent "not very well supervised" and a further 8 per cent said it was "not at all well" supervised.

However, there was widespread demand for more training for researchers. Some 46 per cent of women and 34 per cent of men felt that they would have liked more training for employment during their postgraduate study.

There was also demand for more formal structure for the research council-funded posts. Some 32 per cent of respondents said that their time in postgraduate study should have been "more structured" while only 1 per cent wanted less structure. Students taking an advanced course rarely wanted more structure (only 12 per cent), while among those doing research, there was a call for a more structured system from 49 per cent of the sample.

The first job of just over half (53 per cent) the research students involved research, with 50 per cent taking their first job in a university or polytechnic. Ten years on, 34 per cent of the research students from the sample were working in universities or polytechnics.

The first job of almost a third ( per cent) of masters students involved research, with 18 per cent taking their first job in a university. This had fallen to 16 per cent ten years on.

The survey showed that ten years on, the median salary of former postgraduate students is Pounds 25,300, compared with a median starting salary of Pounds 12,000. Advanced course students were more likely than research students to be earning less than Pounds 10,000 when they first started working, while after a decade the distribution of earnings was similar for research and non-research postgraduates. Some 7 per cent were earning Pounds 50,000 a year or more but 4 per cent were earning Pounds 15,000 or less.

Just over a third had spent three months or more since the end of postgraduate study not in paid work. Of those who had spent a period of three months or more not in employment, 56 per cent had been unemployed.

The survey also suggests that gender differences in research careers may be more apparent than real. Only five of the respondents had not had a job at all in the decade between the award and the present day. Some per cent had had only one and 4 per cent had had six or more, but there was no gender difference in the number of jobs held.

One in ten respondents had taken their first job abroad - 13 per cent of the sample were working abroad ten years on. Only 4 per cent worked abroad in both their first and most recent job.

The 1,523 people who returned the OST's questionnaire had clearly made the most of the postgraduate funding they received. Some 99 per cent of those who took taught courses and 94 per cent of the research students had received a postgraduate degree or some other qualification as a result of the award they had received.

The complete survey can be found at the OST website, http://www.dti.gov.uk.ost.

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