Postgraduate Education: A PhD just isn't enough

Career management is now a vital skill for postgraduate students. By Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
Graduates in science and engineering who stay on at university to take a research degree face an intellectual challenge, but also a fragmented and confusing job market. For a bright scientist or engineer, a doctorate is a respectable career move which opens the door to a career as an academic, or in research in industry. But even though grants are easier to come by than in the arts and humanities, the cost of further study, not least the loss of earnings from foregoing a graduate salary, is putting students off in fields where they can command impressive pay cheques.

Heads of departments in fields such as computer sciences and chemical engineering say postgraduate places are hard to fill, as good graduates can command salaries of pounds 20,000 or more in the private sector. By contrast, the best-paid studentship is unlikely to be more than half that sum. "These people could be offered between pounds 16,000 and pounds 20,000 to start are being asked to stay on at university on less than pounds 10,000," confirms Professor P J Hegg, head of the chemical engineering department at UMIST. "These people have to be very dedicated."

The picture, though, is different in other parts of science. Biological and life sciences have low starting salaries, fewer commercial jobs, and more intensive competition for postgraduate places.

Nor is money the only factor. In pure or fundamental science, a PhD will be the pre-requisite for promotion in many jobs, even outside the university sector. In engineering, it is less relevant.

"Life sciences are different from physical sciences and engineering is different again," explains Mike Gavin, careers adviser at Cambridge University.

The difficulty for graduates embarking on a higher degree in any discipline is that there is no guarantee at all of work at the end of the process. The supply of PhD places is not tied to any quota of academic appointments, post-doctoral research posts, or jobs in industry. Instead, the limiting factor is the pockets of the research councils, which fund the state studentship scheme, or of students themselves.

More PhD graduates are going on to careers in commercial research and in business generally, helped by the training in transferable skills such as communications, presentations and IT which most doctoral students now receive. Academia is still the prime choice of many, though, and even a PhD is often not enough to obtain a lecturer's job. Instead, a period of between one and three years as a postdoctoral research fellow is the normal next stage.

"The availability of lectureships is not high, so even if you do a PhD, and follow it with a research fellowship, you would not be guaranteed a job in research. But you would have to do that to be qualified for one," Mike Gavin explains.

At each stage in the research career ladder, from first degree to permanent university appointment, the number of applicants falls off - but so does the number of vacancies. Broadly, according to universities, the system is in balance, until the newly qualified researchers complete their post- doctoral work.

Then, their age and experience, which should be an advantage, can go against them. Most postdoctoral work is funded by the research councils, which have to justify spending larger sums on salaries for better-qualified researchers. Doing so would mean fewer awards all round, so experienced candidates find themselves priced out of the market.

According to Professor Bill Wakeham, pro-rector for research and development at Imperial College London, there are enough initial postdoctoral posts to satisfy most applicants, if they are prepared to move around, either within the UK university system, or to Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

"The crunch comes after three years," Professor Wakeham explains. "No university can afford many people purely doing research, so they are on short term contracts from universities or research councils. But as they get older, they become more expensive, so finding money to fund them becomes more difficult."

One initiative designed to help is the Concordat for research staff, drawn up between the research councils, the unions and the universities. The idea behind the Concordat is to give university staff whose primary work is in research, rather than teaching, a properly managed career path.

The Concordat has brought improvements in training, and careers advice, but it has done little to address the shortage of academic appointments in general, and pure research posts in particular.

This does not mean that researchers in science and engineering cannot find rewarding work. Trends including the teaching pressures on lecturers, and the growing importance of inter-disciplinary study, which can often only be handled by people with the experience and knowledge a PhD brings, are widening the field.

For the ambitious scientist, though, the facts are that there may be the jobs, but there are not as many careers. For new PhD students, career management will rank alongside research techniques in the skills they will have to develop.