Some hard numbers

[Note: if you are in the UK and have not yet seen our petition about the REF, please look at https://hortensii.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/our-petition-to-hefce/. Thank you!]

Our initial survey generated considerable discussion about what the survival rate of PhDs in academia actually is: how many of the people who earn a PhD end up with a permanent academic job? Some of our correspondents argued for percentages as low as ten, and others maintained that the winners number well over 50%, but hard figures and evidence were very hard to find. Recently, however, it has proved possible to calculate a reasonably well-founded figure for the UK, and it turns out to be 20%. In other words, 80% of those who get a PhD in the UK, four out of every five of them, do not end up with permanent academic jobs. This is not a reasonable attrition rate, suitable to weed out the PhDs who aren’t very good; it is preposterous to suggest that 80% of the people who receive PhDs from UK universities are not good enough to be academics. Instead, it is confirmation of what most of us have suspected for some time: there are now so few jobs and so many PhDs that even very good candidates often come up empty-handed.

The figure of 20% comes from Vitae’s ‘What do Researchers do 2013’ report (available at https://www.vitae.ac.uk/; if you cannot get it from that site, ask us for it), but interestingly a figure for the percentage of PhDs with permanent academic positions is not directly given in that report. Rather one can extract it from the following data:

1) 38.1% of those who had received a PhD in 2010 from a UK university were in an academic job in 2013 (figure of 38.1% reached by adding the 21.4% in ‘teaching in HE’ and the 16.7% in ‘HE research occupations’ given on p. 14; note that the figure of 43.9% employed in higher education, given on p. 13, includes people with non-academic jobs in higher education);

2) of that 38.1%, the researchers are stated (p. 24) to have open-ended contracts 16.5% of the time and the teachers 80.4% of the time, meaning that 2.8% of PhDs have an open-ended research contract and 17.2% have an open-ended teaching contract, for a total of 20%.

How good are these numbers? The survey is based on responses from 2505 PhDs, which is pretty good as surveys go, and the respondents seem to be reasonably representative in terms of gender, age, field of study, etc.: the only obvious bias in the sample is that it focusses on the UK, so it ought to be safe to use these figures for the UK but not necessarily for other countries. However, certain other objections to the figures could be made:

1) The measurement of contract status was ‘open-ended’ versus ‘fixed-term’, and ‘open-ended’ is not always the same as ‘permanent’. A permanent contract runs until retirement, subject to satisfactory performance, and cannot normally be terminated before that date without unsatisfactory performance or redundancy proceedings. An ‘open-ended’ contract can be used for positions funded by ‘soft money’ that run until the money dries up and can therefore end at any time through no fault of the employee. It looks as though the survey lumped these two types of contract together under the term ‘open-ended’, and that therefore the number of PhDs on truly permanent contracts may be less than 20%.

2) Inevitably, figures like these are out of date by the time they are compiled, for what is revealed here is the employment of the 2010 cohort of PhDs, which may not be an accurate guide to the prospects for today’s graduates. Over time there has been a largely consistent trend of more and more PhDs competing for about the same number of academic jobs, so it could well be that the percentage of today’s PhDs who have permanent jobs three years from now will be lower than 20%.

3) Some people who do not have permanent jobs three years after graduation may get such jobs later, meaning that if employment were to be measured after a longer period of time the percentage of PhDs with permanent jobs might be higher than 20%.

4) Not everyone who secures a ‘permanent’ job manages to keep it; in addition to those who do not pass their probationary periods, some lecturers and researchers lose apparently long-term positions when departments are closed or reduced in size. Several of Hortensii’s original respondents pointed out the horrors of finding oneself back on the job market through no fault of one’s own after securing a ‘permanent’ position in a department that did not survive. Therefore it is possible that if employment were to be measured after a longer period of time some of the respondents who had permanent jobs in 2013 would no longer have them, yielding a figure of less than 20%.

5) These figures cover all disciplines, and there are no doubt significant variations between disciplines, so the prospects for PhDs in specific subjects could be better or worse than the overall figures. In some fields the PhD is actively sought by people wanting a career outside academia (we gather that these fields are mostly sciences where there are industrial lab jobs requiring a PhD).

Despite these caveats, the Vitae figures seem to be at present the closest thing to hard evidence on the PhD employment situation that is available, so they should be taken seriously. And they have something important to tell new (and not-so-new) PhDs who are about to embark on the 2015 academic job market. Namely, no matter what anyone says to the contrary, that is one tough market out there, a market so tough that 80% of the possible candidates are not going to get that permanent job that most of them want. Most of those 80% are highly qualified: good researchers, good teachers, people who would make excellent academics — UK universities have a rigorous examination process and very rarely award a PhD to someone who would not be employable as an academic. Therefore the 20% figure also reveals that there should be no shame attached to being one of the 80% who do not get permanent academic jobs.

Of course, we at Hortensii wish everyone the best of luck for the 2015 job market: may you all find the position of your dreams! But realistically we know that that is not going to happen, and most applicants will end up bitterly disappointed, as usual. Nevertheless, something could be different in 2015: this could be the year when it is recognized that the 80% without permanent jobs are not the people to blame for their situation, and the crushing sense of deserved failure so eloquently described by our respondents could be lifted from those of the 80% who currently bear it. If someone you know ends up in the 80% this year, please try telling them that this is not their fault, but rather the normal situation and nothing to be ashamed of. One person saying this might not help, but if enough of us say it, there could be a culture change that, to judge by the results of our survey (see https://hortensii.wordpress.com/what-to-do-and-why/), would make a significant difference to many people’s experiences.

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3 thoughts on “Some hard numbers

  1. Many thanks for compiling this. It’s very interesting and certainly the first hard evidence I’ve seen. I broadly agree that there UK universities are producing too many PhDs. However, I think you are probably underemphasising one factor that you mention:

    ‘Some people who do not have permanent jobs three years after graduation may get such jobs later, meaning that if employment were to be measured after a longer period of time the percentage of PhDs with permanent jobs might be higher than 20%.’

    In my field, impressionistically, it is very rare for PhDs to have a permanent job within 3 years of graduation as most new PhDs will spend at least that long as either a postdoc, a temporary lecturer, or some combination of both. Indeed, the standard postdoc is 3-4 years. I suspect data for, say, five years from graduation would be much more accurate.

  2. Pingback: Welcome to Hortensii | Hortensii

  3. Pingback: Welcome to Hortensii | Hortensii

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