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A PhD opens doors, but that's about all

Don't assume a doctorate will take you straight to the job you want. Philip Schofield lists the other skills needed
About 6,700 students graduate each year with PhDs from British universities. What is the job market like for this elite? What qualities do employers look for in their PhD recruits? What strategies will help them to find suitable employment?

An Institute of Employment Studies (IES) report, The Labour Market for Postgraduates, notes bleakly: "Outside the HE [higher education] sector and research-based organisations, there is little specific demand for postgraduates, especially PhDs. In industry and commerce the majority of postgraduates are recruited as part of the companies' mainstream graduate recruitment programmes."

This is a view supported by the 500-member Association of Graduate Recruiters. Nevertheless, unemployment among PhDs is significantly lower than among first-degree graduates and the general population. Of course this does not mean all those obtaining permanent employment work at a level appropriate to their qualifications; the evidence suggests that some start jobs at no more than first-degree level.

However, this is often short-term, with their subsequent career development overtaking that of colleagues with fewer qualifications.

The main employer of PhDs is higher education. Of those entering permanent employment in the UK, more than 40 per cent go into the universities. A higher degree is normally the minimum needed to work in higher education. The government takes another one in eight, as does the oil and chemicals industry.

There are big variations between disciplines, especially in the sciences. For example, universities take half the mathe-maticians but only one in five chemists. The government employs a quarter of the biologists but fewer than one in 20 materials scientists. The oil and chemicals industry employs almost half the chemists but fewer than one in 30 mathematicians.

More than half of all the PhD graduates entering UK permanent employment, and nearly three-quarters of the scientists, work in scientific research and support.

Another one in five PhDs teaches or lectures, although only one in 12 scientists does so. This is partly explained by the fact that while most people entering higher education start teaching more or less straight away, scientists often undertake a period of employment as post-doctoral research assistants before taking up a teaching post.

The most important area of work for PhDs, outside research and teaching, is in management services. Although employing less than 6 per cent of all PhDs, management services in industry and commerce take one in five mathematicians and one in eight physicists.

Most employers in the private sector that specifically recruit PhDs do so for their specialist knowledge. Few employers report any shortages, although there is a perception that high-quality applicants are hard to come by. While academic attainment is the single most important selection criterion, recruiters are critical of the lack of interpersonal skills and business awareness among PhD graduates. Nor is this concern confined to private sector employers. Universities need staff who can work with people in industry to secure research contracts, consultancies, student placements and other forms of collaboration. Public sector employers, too, have become more dependent on commercial contracts.

An IES report, Science PhDs and the Labour Market, says that some employers are concerned about inadequate standards of creativity and original thought. It observes that "those organisations which stressed their requirement for innovative thinkers, when explaining why they employed doctoral scientists, were concerned that some PhD students were given little scope for creativity when doing their doctorates".

The report goes on to suggest that too many students work on a project without really considering or understanding the science behind it. The authors add: "These graduates were perceived to be technical 'handle crankers' rather than thinking scientists, and several organisations stated that they tried to eliminate such candidates through their selection process."

Some employers also suggest that PhD graduates are too specialist. They lack the overview of their discipline that would enable them to collaborate with those outside their speciality and to be flexible in the kind of research they undertake.

So given the statistics and the criticisms, what strategy should PhD students pursue to improve their chances of finding a suitable career opening?

q Do not conduct your research in a vacuum. Think carefully before you accept a project that is just part of your head of department's research. Make sure you understand the context of your research field. Don't become a handle cranker.

q Read around your subject, not just into it. Get the overview.

q Practise discussing and describing the technical aspects of your work with people outside your field. Employers need people who can work and commun- icate in multidisciplinary teams.

q Develop your commercial awareness. If you have not already done so, try to find holiday or weekend work in the commercial sector. If appropriate, consider seeking industrial or commercial sponsorship for your research. Read one or two good up-to-date management books.

q If you are considering a career in industry or commerce, join the Student Industrial Society.

q Take an active part in at least one university society. Ideally, help to organise a significant event as a member of a team.

q "Start to focus on your future employment as soon as possible after beginning doctoral studies," the IES advises.

q Develop a network of personal contacts in your field during your studies and let them know your career aspirations.

q Identify employers early in your studies that are likely to have an interest in your specialist field. Develop contacts within these companies, seek sponsorship, help them to get to know you. Speculative applications to carefully selected organisations can be more effective than responding to advertisements.

q Do not overlook small and medium-sized firms. Many offer good R&D openings.

A PhD does not guarantee a job at the appropriate level. However, if you can demonstrate mature social skills, commercial awareness and the ability to work well in a team, you will have a distinct advantage for a general graduate-level entry post. Winning your first post is the real challenge. It is then up to you to use these intellectual, social, commercial and team-working skills to make faster progress than first-degree entrants.