The majority of students view their education as a critical investment for their future professional success. Better grades or longer academic journeys are generally considered as an antecedent of wider employment choices and higher salary levels. Unfortunately, this hypothesis rarely passes the reality check in the modern working environment. More than 80% of British millennials in the 25-34 age group are employed and work in the services sector. However, more than one-third of these individuals have a side job, while 80% of them are highly dissatisfied with their current careers. According to a recent article published by The Guardian, even the graduates with several academic degrees find it hard to find stable employment providing sufficient salary levels. Hence, the main question that every 2019 graduate should ask his or herself is whether the skills and qualifications provided by their university’s PhD course will actually be demanded by employers and properly rewarded in the future.
A PhD degree is usually considered as a necessary prerequisite of employment in a number of industries such as biomedical sciences. This effect may be more prominent in the cases when the dissertation topic is directly connected with the future sphere of employment. In this scenario, the collection of practical evidence for the research project frequently allows the applicant to develop the skills necessary for the future line of work. The proper choice of PhD majors also affects mid-career median pay in such areas as electrical and computer engineering, computer engineering, chemical engineering, and economics (see the following Figure). This suggests that getting a degree may be highly valuable for improving your recruitment perspectives and maximising your future salary levels in a number of presently popular professions.
Source: Forbes (2016, n.p.)
However, this trend also creates the dangerous ‘PhD overdrive’ effect. As more and more students decide to complete their PhD programmes, this degree becomes a ‘commonplace thing’ rather than a viable competitive advantagein certain labour market segments. Hence, many employers tend to expect it as a prerequisite even if the actual job does not require this level of knowledge and qualifications. This forces further students into the ‘PhD cycle’ sustaining this ‘snowball effect’. If this trend persists, it may be difficult to predict the actual usefulness of spending the next five years of your life on getting a degree in a presently popular sphere.
According to the 2015 MIT Career Survey, as much as 28.2% of all PhD graduates ended up in the educational segment of the labour market. While this information may not be generalisable to all universities, this trend could be viewed as a dangerous one. The system where students leave higher education only to end up re-entering it later may be viewed as a highly flawed one in terms of real-life employment opportunities and the market value of PhD education.
Source: MIT Career Survey (2015, p.6)
Some of the possible reasons for this PhD-market fit problem were voiced by Dr Michael Barr from the London School of Economics. On the one hand, PhD programmes vary to a substantial degree between countries and finding the optimal one may be difficult in terms of time and financial resources. On the other hand, the majority of these courses were originally developed for supporting future academic careers of students rather and do not teach practical skills demanded by the market.
Possible Solutions and Future Trends
The earlier cited MIT Career Survey also revealed that up to 40.2% of all PhD graduates found their first jobs via networking while 37.8% directly applied to their future employers. This demonstrates the significance of proactive communication on part of the students for their employment perspectives. On the contrary, only 23.5% of the studied sample found their first post-PhD jobs via their departments or academic administrators. Specialised university services (MIT Career Services in this case) had the effectiveness of 0.6%, which means that universities are highly ineffective in facilitating the future recruitment of their graduates.
Figure 3: How 2015 PhDs found their Jobs
Source: MIT Career Survey (2015, p.5)
The employment trends analysed by The Guardian indicate that preferences of employers are presently geared towards the practical industry experience rather than advanced academic qualifications. While the number of PhD students in the market is growing, only a limited amount of industries and organisations are capable of utilising their skills to the level balancing higher payment rates. Hence, deciding to set on this academic path may be a risky decision considering the increasing labour market uncertainty. You should also remember that this degree ‘nullifies’ your current one since your practical knowledge and skills will be ‘four years old’ when you complete your degree. The Science Magazine recommends that PhD students should clearly rationalise their academic choices by planning their future career paths and establishing their networks of contacts in their industries of choice. This way, they can be certain that they can pay off their student loans and make their efforts worth the time and money. However, these plans should also account for macro-environmental instabilities and personal problems that may disrupt the capability to pursue this goal for the next five years.
It can be summarised that the PhD degree as educational attainment does not guarantee post-graduate education in 2019. On the one hand, it may improve your employability in some spheres such as computer engineering or biomedical sciences. On the other hand, the MIT Career Survey demonstrated that even technical specialists had a hard time finding a job in non-educational contexts in the 2010s. These findings suggest that the overall situation in the labour market is highly unpredictable at the moment as final decisions are usually made by particular employers. These findings suggest that both universities and academic advisors should promote the role of networking and ‘career fairs’ in academic and employment planning. This way, the graduates can build reasonable expectations regarding their future development paths and make more informed decisions regarding the need to pursue the PhD route. At the same time, this may also be beneficial for universities that can allocate PhD scholarships more effectively and prevent the earlier described ‘PhD overdrive’ effect.