Too many PhDs, not enough tenured positions

European study reveals stress suffered by doctoral holders over insecurity of academic careers

May 28, 2015
Players sitting on bench at football game
Source: Alamy
Still waiting: the lack of secure academic posts ‘is causing instability at structural, professional and personal levels’

The oversupply of PhD holders in Europe is causing “considerable dissatisfaction and stress” for researchers on temporary contracts, according to a report by the European Science Foundation.

The study, tracking the careers of doctoral holders from five research organisations, finds that just a third end up in tenured positions and that the widespread desire for an academic career is “not sustainable”.

That few doctoral graduates go on to work in sectors outside academia should be “centre stage” on national policy agendas, it says.

As part of a pilot project to better understand what happens to PhD holders in Europe, the ESF worked with five continental research organisations, including the Goethe Graduate Academy at the University of Frankfurt and the National Research Fund in Luxembourg. Each organisation contacted PhD graduates up to seven years after completing their doctorates, and almost 500 of them completed questionnaires about their work and life.

The analysis found that it took on average 4.3 years for respondents to complete a PhD, which is shorter than the average reported by the US’ Council of Graduate Schools. This is probably the result of shorter funding periods and a fall in the quality of PhDs as more countries “dramatically expand” doctoral programmes, says the report, Career Tracking of Doctorate Holders.

Almost all respondents were employed, with 90 per cent in research posts. But only a third of these had tenured positions, according to the report. The main reason for leaving research – given by those who had left – was the difficulty of building a career in the field.

Insecure employment causes “considerable dissatisfaction and stress” in the postdoctoral population, the report says.

Most of those surveyed wanted a career in academia, which is “not sustainable” given the rising number of PhD graduates looking for work in an “oversupplied” employment sector, it adds.

“Tenure, or the increasing lack of it, is a major issue causing instability at structural, professional and personal levels,” says the report. The shortage should be “critically examined with a view to developing alternative models that provide structured opportunities for tenured employment”, it states. “Addressing the reasons for low levels of transfer to other employment sectors…needs to be centre stage on European and national policy agendas.”

The report advises that universities and funding bodies should manage the expectations of PhD candidates and make them aware that only a “tiny proportion” will find work in academia, and should also look at how well candidates are prepared for work elsewhere. “More should be done to develop greater awareness of, and knowledge about, relevant careers outside of academia in consultancy, industry, government and elsewhere,” it adds.

About 90 per cent of those surveyed had worked or studied in another country. The report warns that the pressure for PhD graduates to be mobile can be difficult for those with a family or caring responsibilities and says that this should be taken into account in funding models.

The report also finds that researchers from countries on the periphery of Europe tend to move to north European countries for work and often do not return home.

Siobhan Phillips, a senior science officer at the European Science Foundation, said: “Countries on the periphery [of Europe] need to look at their models for encouraging and supporting the continuity of their doctoral population.”


Article originally published as: A profusion of PhDs but a lack of tenure (28 May 2015)

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Reader's comments (1)

In Australia, a post-doc applicant and myself are reporting an average of 145 candidates per position. This can be partly attributed to the 6000 researchers on a 402-category visa, which provides opportunity to experience our 'governance' on a the same remuneration as a casual McDonalds burger flipper receives. But the limited tenure has a further advantage for the institution, in that anyone who's reported misconduct has lost tenure and thus temporary residency.