Doctorate degree holders take research skills outside academia

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The doctorate degree, or PhD, is the highest qualification included in the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED, level 8 in the ISCED 2011). It is also  unique because it bridges education with scientific research and innovation. Although the number of professional doctorates is increasing, in most cases they are qualifications acquired after several years of research leading to an original contribution to the scientific evidence base. The qualification rewards deep knowledge of  a specific field of research and mastery of research methodologies. It acknowledges the doctorate holder as a member of the scientific community and grants access to academia.

In recent years the doctorate degree has been the focus of policy initiatives, both from the higher education policy field and the policy field of science and research. Many countries have tried to radically increase the numbers of doctorates in recent years. Bursary schemes, grants and various support systems, both for individual students and for universities and research institutions, have been developed to attract more students into doctoral programmes. These policies have been very successful. The latest Education Indicators in Focus issue, based on data published in Education at a Glance 2014,  notes that between 2000 and 2012 the graduation rate among doctoral students has increased by 60% on average  across OECD countries, from 1.0% to 1.6%. That’s probably the largest increase ever observed in any qualification level in such a short period of time !

Obviously, there are huge differences among countries, both with regard to the current graduation rate and to the speed of increase since 2000, as is evident from the chart above. Ambitious countries, such as Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, have expanded doctoral programmes as part of their efforts to rapidly improve their relative position in the science and research  fields and in global university rankings. They take the lead, with graduation rates of 3.3%, 2.8% and 2.7%, respectively.    The  largest relative increases in  graduation rates among doctoral students since 2000 are found in the Slovak Republic (330% increase), Greece (420% increase, but starting from a much lower base), Denmark, Norway and Ireland.

A large and growing production of PhDs certainly contributes to the creation of new research evidence and a country’s research output. But, apart from the scientific outcomes of doctoral research, what does a doctoral degree actually contribute to the degree holder and the wider society? Surely the academic system itself – especially in an age of economic crisis and austerity – is not expanding at an equivalent rate, so employment opportunities for  PhDs in academia are limited. Many countries try to increase the return on the huge investments made in doctoral programmes, by offering more opportunities at the post-doctoral level; but despite those attempts, the prospects of successfully pursuing an academic career is not bright.

This tension between a larger number of doctoral degrees and limited employment opportunities in academic and research institutions, has triggered a debate on the purpose and utility of this qualification. Governments have developed policies to widen the scope of the doctoral degree, by including various skills sets useful for future employment in other parts of the public and private sectors, so that a  doctorate does not prepare a student exclusively for a research career. More frequently now, PhDs leave universities and research institutions to join research labs in private companies, public administrations and non-research jobs in various organisations. Some doctorate holders may regard this as a second-choice option, as research training often evolves into a university career.  At the societal level, however, an increase of highly-skilled workers with research skills can be regarded as beneficial, even if some would see it as a form of qualifications inflation and/or a threat to lower-qualified workers.

The data provided in the EDIF brief show that the employment opportunities for doctorate degree holders, outside research institutions, are very good. On average across OECD countries, the employment rate for PhDs reaches 91%, compared with 85% for bachelor’s and master’s degree holders. And, even more interesting, their employment rates in the private sector and government agencies are very significant in a number of countries. No longer are doctorate degrees simply entry tickets to the guild of university professors. Society at large increasingly benefits from the research skills and experience that these people have acquired.

Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 25, by Eric Charbonnier, Joris Ranchin and Laudeline Auriol
Education Indication in Focus: French version
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Photo credit: ©OECD

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