Are we having too many PhDs?

By Mathew Wong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 25, 2019
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PhD students attend a graduation ceremony of Renmin University of China in Beijing on June 19, 2017. [Photo/VCG]

Human capital is always a key element of socioeconomic growth. While the starting point to measure this may be the share of the workforce with secondary or even tertiary qualifications, a more advanced indicator might be the number of research postgraduates, with degrees commonly known as masters/doctors of philosophy (MPhil/PhD). 

In the current era of technology and innovation, this group of people is directly related to the amount of scientific knowledge, new ideas and cutting-edge products a society can produce. In assessing the strength and potential of a country, observers now look at the number of Nobel laureates, patents/patented products, research articles in academic journals, to name but a few. All of these come from the pool of experts trained in research in their respective areas, in other words, the group of PhDs. However, the world today seems to be facing the opposite problem: Are we having "too many" PhDs?

There is an emerging frustration growing among doctoral students in many countries who only end up with highly competitive short-term research contracts upon the completion of their degree. Some of these postdoctoral researchers have described themselves as "cheap labor" in the field of academia. A recent report by The Guardian highlighted the concern that only a small number of PhD graduates eventually obtain a coveted permanent position in the U.K. 

While some of these graduates might seek alternative positions, for example in the R&D departments of private companies, 80% of researchers actually want to stay in academia according to an industry survey. This contrasts with some disciplines in universities which only have enough academic jobs to employ a few percent of all the PhD graduates in that area. Indeed, the uncertain career prospects in academia, which have existed for years, deserve attention amid the boom of PhD holders across the globe.

The issue of job mismatch in the PhD workforce is not limited to Western countries and is also seen in Asia. The number of new doctorate degree holders each year in Japan is misaligned to the number of job openings and permanent jobs are also rare now in academia. Data from the Japan Science and Technology Agency show that between 2012-2015, 71% of job postings for assistant professors were for limited terms. According to a news report by Nature Index, only 10.9% of tenured researchers were under 40 in 2013, down from 18.8% in 2007, whereas the proportion of fixed-term contracts has increased from 14.5% to 20.3% in the same period. 

An advisor for Japan's Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, said government policies are partly to blame for this trend, as the grants used to pay wages for permanent staff in national universities have been reduced by about 1% every year. Instead, more money is being pumped into short-term projects with which many young researchers' salaries are tied to.

Young doctoral graduates in South Korea are also facing hardship and are struggling to get a job. Official data showed that one out of five doctorate graduates in 2017 were without a job, the highest rate since data collection on this trend began in 2014. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service, the figure was 21.3% in 2014, 20.3% in 2015 and 21.6% in 2016. Younger PhD graduates in South Korea are now struggling harder to find a job as compared to their older counterparts. Sociologists warned that the shortage of jobs for PhD graduates will hinder social development in the long-term and urged society to find ways to make good use of these highly educated workers. 

On the contrary, the employment situation in China is not as alarming as the others mentioned above. China has produced the most number of graduates with doctorate degrees in recent years and it is estimated that there were 362,000 doctorate students as of 2017. A report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) found that the overall employment rate of Chinese doctoral graduates in 2014 was generally high. A relatively low proportion of these people were engaged in freelance and short-term contracts, averaging below 10%. Notably, the unemployment rate of PhD graduates from Tsinghua University and Peking University during the year was 2.4% and 3.18% respectively, well below the national urban unemployment rate of 4.1%. 

The CASS report analyzed six prestigious research universities in China and found that around 30% to 60% of graduates went into the academia and science research institutes, while the remaining PhD holders were absorbed into the public sector. Other popular options for science graduates were biotech and public health industries. Despite the low unemployment rate and relatively good prospects, it has been reported that professors in China are underpaid compared to their counterparts in other industries who may have had the same educational background. A China Daily report interviewed some PhD candidates who said that the best students seldom ended up in academic positions. Rather, they preferred going into banks or foreign companies with better compensation packages.

In light of the above, governments should balance between the development of the advanced research sector and the utilization of this pool of human resources. The government should also increase spending in public universities to improve the relatively low proportion of tenure-track positions in academia in the long-term. This should alleviate the frustration of poor job prospects faced by young PhD graduates, who have the ability to drive innovation in the economy. At the same time, universities can also provide related training to equip students to adapt to the demands of the private sector, including leadership and communication skills, should they find the academia unsuitable for them. 

Dr. Mathew Wong is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences in the Education University of Hong Kong.

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