Exactly how valuable is a PhD?

An article written by myself and Furaha Asani for Times Higher Education in October 2016 – link here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/exactly-how-valuable-phd

PhD lettered on book spine

Currently, UK higher education is undergoing changes, and recent evidence suggests that change is extending to the career paths that some PhD graduates are taking. These higher education veterans have begun to buck the trend of staying on in their academic departments and are branching out of familiar collegial settings into industry.

Findings from RCUK and the Royal Society show that about 50 per cent of UK PhD graduates have opted to work in roles outside academia since 2010. Those who did stay in higher education research felt less secure and were dissatisfied with their future career prospects, the research found.

Another problem is that a PhD isn’t the golden ticket to higher earnings that it is perceived to be. Research by Bernard Casey shows that while PhD graduates earn 26 per cent more than those who don’t go to university, they only earn 3 per cent more than master’s degree holders. And in the case of one study in pharmacology, a PhD actually reduced earnings.

Since many of us will end up outside academia, it makes sense to gain transferable skills and experiences during our PhD. Employers want high level graduates with a plethora of skills after all. What we need is an alignment of all doctoral education contributors to support and empower us to realise the many opportunities there are for development. Therefore, as current PhD students and potential future employees, an important question to address is: how can all stakeholders add value to our doctoral degrees to help us to become more competitive in the modern knowledge economy?

Being cooped in a lab or an office won’t do much for our future employability unless we collaborate, create and share our work with our peers and with the public. There are many public engagement events and entrepreneurial competitions where doctoral brainpower can really be put to the test. There are the more subject specific options such as: the Pint of Science competition where students talk science in the pub, or the Biotechnology young entrepreneur’s scheme.

There are even more of these types of activities open to all students. Whether you study microbes or migration, you can get involved in 3 Minute ThesisFame Lab, and even Dance Your PhD. All of these can give us another string to our bows after graduation.

Supervisors are key to a doctoral student’s development and are role models for many of us. They have a great amount of influence over what we do and we often have to timidly seek their consent to get involved in anything extracurricular. If there is a culture in which all supervisors are encouraging and supportive of skills development, engaged students can access those great opportunities. It’s often forgotten that a doctoral supervisor isn’t a teacher or a boss, they are a coach. This can be challenging for distance learners but there are ways to tackle the distance and get the most out of the relationship, even if you don’t work well with them.

Many UK universities are actively encouraging postgraduates to learn useful skills for the wider working world. Many institutions have excellent teams of researcher developers whose job it is to help PhD students stand out from the crowd, funded by £120 million of government cash known as the “Roberts money”. This has led to the creation of THE Award-winning researcher development programmes such as “Think Ahead” at the University of Sheffield.

However, there are very real and complex barriers hindering us from realising these opportunities.

Competition for jobs is getting more intense: the number of students studying for a research degree in the UK has steadily increased to more than 112,000 in 2015, making up 5 per cent of all students at our universities. There are more issues close to home. National data from the 2015 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) survey found that, across the UK, PhD students were most dissatisfied with the “research culture” in their universities. Simply put, they found it hard to integrate and develop partnerships with colleagues locally, nationally and globally. While the survey only reached 40 per cent of the 2015 UK student population, for many, this conclusion may ring true, particularly part-time students.

Equally worrying are the troubling revelations about mental health in academia and among PhD students and the common factors likely to be causing it: imposter syndrome, self-funding, and problematic supervisors – to name a few.

While the focus for us PhD students will always be on our project, we should be encouraged and allowed to take part in activities alongside our research to give us that extra “oomph” when applying for jobs. There is plenty of opportunity, but what we need is to encourage uptake from all partners in doctoral education. If guided well, we can apply our skills to a whole host of different environments and take these new skills to the proverbial bank.