The Changing PhD – Turning out millions of doctorates

As more and more universities around the world graduate ever-increasing numbers of students with PhDs, governments are beginning to ask if it is time to slow the production line. A new study notes that China is the world leader in producing PhDs, having outnumbered the United States on a per year basis for the first time in 2008.

By then, the Asian giant had awarded more than 240,000 doctorates over only the previous 30 years after its PhD programmes were stopped during the Cultural Revolution. These did not restart until 1978 when a mere 18 students were undertaking doctorates – but since then PhD enrolment has expanded by 24% a year.

But according to the study’s author, Dr Les Rymer, the number of qualified professors needed to supervise China’s doctoral programmes has not kept pace, raising fears that quantity is not being matched by quality.

Rymer says each qualified Chinese professor has to supervise 5.77 doctorate candidates, much higher than the average ratio internationally.

Moreover, as University World News reported last October, unemployment in China among new postgraduates has been rising for the past seven years and was higher than for undergraduates in the three years to 2012. This is one reason why China is putting emphasis on growing the number of professional PhDs and on moving research to industry.

The global picture

According to Rymer, one issue stimulating debate about PhD education is the view that, at least in some disciplines, universities are producing too many PhD graduates.

He says in part this stems from a recognition that many PhD graduates are unable to find academic positions and that a high proportion of those who do may find themselves working in casual or part-time appointment:

“The adage that a research student is someone who forgoes current income in order to forgo future income can have an element of truth, at least in some disciplines.”

Yet across the globe, universities continue to generate increasing numbers of PhDs.

In the US, some 400 institutions now run PhDs programmes and more than 1.35 million doctorates were awarded between 1920 and 1999. Of these, 62% were in science and engineering – “itself a reflection of the way in which modern economies were becoming more dependent on technological development”, Rymer says.

Elsewhere, Brazil doubled the number of doctoral students in its universities during the decade to 2009, during which time the number of science doctorates earned each year in OECD member countries grew by nearly 40%, to 34,000.

In Egypt, PhD enrolments doubled between 1998 and 2009 to 35,000 and even impoverished Zimbabwe wants every university lecturer to have a PhD by 2015. Malaysia has set a target of 60,000 PhD holders by 2023 while the European Union plans to create a million new research jobs by 2020, when India hopes to be graduating up to 20,000 PhDs a year.

The study

In a 60-page paper published by Australia’s Group of Eight research-intensive universities, Rymer describes the rise of the PhD in universities across the globe, the reasons why nations want more and more PhDs, the increasing diversity among doctoral students, funding constraints facing universities and efforts to improve the quality of research training.

He notes that questions have been raised about the number of PhDs a country produces, or their quality, or the relevance of the training students receive given the employment opportunities on offer.

There is also questioning of whether the intention to increase the number of PhD graduates will be at the expense of their quality and whether the rewards of having a PhD compensate for the costs of acquiring one.

“The purpose of this paper is to identify current concerns that different groups are raising about PhD education and PhD graduates; to set them in the context of broader trends affecting education more generally; and to point to some of the reforms and other changes already under way.”

Rymer is a policy advisor on graduate education at the Group of Eight’s Canberra headquarters and was previously a principal advisor to the New Zealand government on research and innovation.

He says the huge increase in doctoral candidates means there is now a much more diverse PhD graduate population than in even the recent past. Also, with an increasing proportion of the population holding the qualification, its ‘elite’ nature tends to disappear “as does the premium that can arise from having a credential that very few other people possess".

This is especially the case given the massification of higher education that has taken place over the same period and the increasingly diverse range of postgraduate and lifelong learning options that has become available

“Within Europe, the Bologna process is leading to a convergence of PhD programmes across different countries and institutions, with the PhD comprising a three- to four-year programme following a masters degree.

‘While the PhD centres on a major research project, it increasingly also involves additional coursework to promote the development of generic or transferable skills to complement the disciplinary knowledge and skills that the research develops.”

PhDs and jobs

Governments and the public both appear to recognise the importance of PhD education, Rymer says.

One consequence is that the number of PhD graduates around the world is increasing at an ever-expanding rate but, unfortunately, “the job opportunities available for PhD graduates and the security and remuneration these opportunities provide do not always appear commensurate with the opportunity costs involved in studying for a PhD, at least to the graduates themselves”.

Some PhD graduates find that the openings they expected to appear once they had acquired a PhD are not there or do not take the form they would like, Rymer says.

The jobs on offer may lack security or status, be poorly paid, not use directly the particular skills or disciplinary knowledge graduates acquired through the course of their PhD training, or may not even require a PhD qualification at all.

“In some cases people having a PhD are seen as over-qualified or as being likely to be deficient in some of the generic attributes necessary for a good employee – effective communication skills, or an ability to work effectively as part of a team, for example.”

He points to a report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that of the 317,000 waiters and waitresses in the US with college degrees more than 8,000 have doctoral or professional degrees. In the UK, almost 80% of people achieving PhDs in science will eventually find careers outside science.

There is no reason, Rymer says, to suppose the situation is any different with respect to the social sciences, humanities or creative arts, especially given that PhDs in these disciplines are often less directly vocational than those in science, technology, engineering and maths disciplines.

Neither is there any reason to suppose that other developed countries are different.


Yet in his conclusion, Rymer ends on a more optimistic note. He says pressures for change are coming from the growth in the number of PhD students, the increasing diversity of the student cohort and the problems of supporting part-time students who are often working off-campus and in non-academic environments.

An increased diversity in the employment trajectory of PhD graduates is raising questions about the kinds and the breadth of non-research skills that PhD graduates need or can reasonably acquire to make them more competitive in the job market against those with bachelor degrees and with work experience.

“Changes in the research environment, with greater emphasis on large-scale interdisciplinary research managed to achieve outcomes identified in advance – as distinct from research whose major aim is to advance knowledge – are also creating the need for broader and different skill sets.

“Despite this ongoing debate, the PhD remains and will remain the pinnacle of formal academic achievement. Australia and other countries will continue to need people who can contribute to national well-being by drawing upon the specialised knowledge and research capabilities that PhD education provides.”