Despite growing numbers, job market still demands PhDs

Despite a 38% increase in PhDs in OECD countries – reaching 213,000 in 2009 – there is still a premium on people with doctorates, according to a recent analysis of labour market and mobility indicators for doctorate holders.

The study was conducted by the OECD in cooperation with UNESCO and Eurostat.

Forty-two countries reported data in the so-called OECD KNOWINNO project – Making the Most of Science – supported by the European Union’s Seventh Framework programme with the participation of a large number of institutions and experts.

A database of internationally comparable indicators was built up with information on: early careers of doctorate holders; job-to-job mobility; international mobility; and competences and skills of doctorate holders.

The project revealed the following trends:
  • • Employment rates for doctorate holders are high.
  • • Higher education is the biggest employment sector for PhDs.
  • • Natural science and engineering PhDs are most strongly represented in research.
  • • Social scientists find more opportunities in non-research occupations.
  • • Job mobility patters differ markedly across countries.
  • • Women were awarded almost 46% of new doctoral degrees in OECD countries.
  • • The age of doctorate holders on graduation is high, in particular in some countries and in some fields of study.
  • • Doctorate holders in medical and health sciences are paid above the average in most countries, while those in agricultural sciences and humanities earn below average.
When broken down by country, however, these overall trends demonstrate marked differences.

Switzerland and Sweden are on top in terms of the percentage of people in a cohort receiving a doctorate degree – 3.4% and 3.1% respectively against the national average of 1.5%.

There are wide variations in graduation age. The median age is between 30 and 35 years, but this ranges from 28 years in natural sciences in Belgium and 30 years in the social sciences, to 36 years and above in Croatia, Israel, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia and Malta.

Further comparisons demonstrate that around 30% of doctorate holders are younger than 45 years; but in most countries at least 20% are more than 55 years old and hence likely to retire in the next 10 years.

In Bulgaria, Russia, Israel and Latvia more than 35% of PhD holders are older than 55 years upon graduation.

“In the long run those patterns can have a negative effect on the research capacity of these nations,” the OECD report states.

Although the proportion of women among PhD holders is increasing, women still represent less than 40% of all doctorate holders in 13 out of 22 countries reporting these figures.

The report did not find evidence that the growth in numbers of people with PhDs had resulted in excess supply in the labour market. On the contrary, there seemed to be a growing premium on doctoral skills.

The report demonstrates that temporary work contracts are high in more than half of the economies for which data are available. Particularly high proportions are reported in Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Slovenia.

The share of doctorates on temporary contracts less than five years after receiving their degrees is 57% in Portugal 45% in Germany, 41% in The Netherlands and over 23% in 10 of the 16 economies reported.

The report also analysed the often problematic work situation and opportunities for postdoctoral positions in most countries, data on PhD earnings, doctoral holders’ perceptions of their professional positions, the attractiveness of research careers, patterns of job-to-job mobility, and international mobility and the competition for talent.