The number of PhD students graduating from Australian universities continues to rise, with more than 8000 in 2014 and about one-in-three in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Our best estimates are that about half of these students will begin an academic career as postdoctoral research fellows or research assistants.
But over time most will move out of – and much less frequently back into – academic jobs.
Only about 2% of PhD graduates are expected to reach professorial levels and enjoy the privilege of an uninterrupted academic career.
Options and expectations
Most PhD graduates are driven by a passion for their field and commit years to study. Some are sold on the promise that they will one day have an independent research career, like their supervisors.
The reality of fierce competition for grants, intense pressure to perform, inflexible funding regulations and 12-month contracts is often a stark and unwelcome revelation.
But the modern PhD is not only a training to conduct specialised research. It is also a wider preparation for diverse employment.
A PhD equips people with the ability to think critically, to assess a problem in the context of the wider body of knowledge, and to produce original solutions independently. It also gives them the ability to communicate and articulate solutions.
Irrespective of whether they find careers in academia, graduates with STEM PhDs are more likely to be employed and will earn higher salaries than bachelors and higher-degree graduates from most other disciplines within five years of graduation.
This is seen by those in government as a positive for the economy. People with STEM PhDs are increasingly seen by employers in government, industry and the community sector as some of the best generalist graduates on the market.
So we need to do more to help PhD students understand that their training opens up a wide range of possibilities, with academic research being just one, and we need to support PhD students to explore what fits best for them.
We need better enrolment processes, supervision, skills development and internship opportunities. That way our most highly trained graduates would be better prepared to embrace the many opportunities that a PhD will bring.
For those who stay in academia
One key issue we need to address is how to plan for and achieve a healthy balance of senior, junior and mid-career researchers across the disciplines. We need to do this with equal opportunities for men, women and those from diverse groups to nurture a healthy pipeline of talented new scientists for the future.
But both the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC) have struggled to develop schemes that build and nurture research careers while simultaneously supporting proposals judged by peer-review to be the best and most worthwhile research ideas.
One scheme that has changed the game to an extent is the ARC Future Fellowship scheme. The Academy of Science advocated strongly and instrumentally for prior to its establishment in 2009, and for its continuation when threatened by budget cuts more recently.
But with funding for just 100 Future Fellowships each year, this scheme is only a drop in the ocean. There is clearly much to be done.
Investing in capability
Australia is starting to recognise that to be a successful player in the world economy we do need to move into the innovation age. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, released last year, started that process.
Many have argued Australia needs to invest about 3% of GDP in science and research to be on par with countries which have strong and successful innovation performance.
To achieve this, Australia would have to commit in the order of A$5 billion a year of additional public funding of research to leverage an additional A$10 billion a year in industry research and development. This is not an easy task and not something that will happen quickly.
Only when there is a firm commitment to investing in the research sector can the focus shift to building capacity in the longer term.
But the financial quadrant of government (and the industry sector) is often reluctant to make longer-term commitments, and wherever possible tends to retreat to short term programs because this maximises the flexibility to shift resources in response to the demands of the day.
The message that we need to reinforce is that good research is not done in little bites. Moving away from an environment where short-term funding cycles for research are the norm and towards a framework which commits to larger, deeper and longer-term programs would instantly provide a vehicle in which career structures for researchers can be embedded.
Review of research training
Looking at research training itself, we need to make sure the many thousands of PhD graduates produced each year are both better prepared for (and less shocked by) the reality that many will end up working in government or industry, and not in academia.
There is also a need to help students to attain and/or recognise their transferable skills. Industry, government or community sector placements can both expose students to those opportunities and to employer needs outside of academia. It also shows to employers the skill sets of PhD graduates.
We need to do more both to support and encourage the most intellectually and experimentally capable scientists at all levels to flourish in the research sector. That way we better prepare our most highly-trained graduates to contribute to society through a variety of rewarding occupations and careers, outside of academia.
Les Field, Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science, and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, UNSW Australia and Andrew Holmes, President of the Australian Academy of Science, Laureate Professor Emeritus, University of Melbourne