The wider benefits of a PhD

Higher education and research have come to the forefront of international debates about economic growth. There has been a growing consensus among policy-makers that post-industrial society requires more highly educated people with technical and professional skills in a knowledge-based economy.

Doctoral education has become of paramount significance in a world where knowledge is the new 'fuel', the ultimate economic renewable to economic growth leading to a knowledge-based economy.

While there is still no consensus on the relationship between human capital and economic growth, PhD holders who have accumulated substantial human capital through education have been identified as "one of the key actors behind the creation of knowledge-based economic growth", according to Laudeline Auriol's 2010 paper, "Careers of Doctorate Holders: Employability and mobility patterns".

From the individual perspective, investment in doctoral education is rather costly - in terms of fees, subsistence and foregone earnings - and lengthy.

Considering that individuals might yield fewer returns for doctoral investment compared to a masters degree in subjects like engineering and technology, and also the increasing criticism that the doctorate has received in the media in terms of career prospects and doctoral attrition, it is important to identify and highlight the benefits that doctoral experience entails beyond financial and career returns for PhD graduates and a knowledge-based economy.

Limited information exists about the value of the PhD for individuals beyond pecuniary terms.

In their 2009 paper, "The Career Choices and Impact of PhD Graduates in the UK: A synthesis review", Dr Arwen Raddon and Dr Johnny Sung remarked on the deficiency of information on the personal value of the doctorate together with the social and cultural impact of studying at that level.

They wrote: "...we still lack in-depth examinations of some complex areas including: in-depth examination of the direct impact of PhD graduates in the workplace and the 'value added' of employing these individuals...particularly over the long run".

One of the research objectives of my PhD project was to examine the benefits and impacts that the PhD had on the early career paths of Greek PhD graduates from both British and Greek universities.

It was a mixed methods research project including an online survey with 244 responses and 26 semi-structured follow-up interviews with a sub-sample of the respondents.

Enhancing transferable skills

PhD holders identified further benefits of doctoral education beyond acquiring specialised knowledge. Benefits include a set of transferable skills: problem-solving, critical reasoning, thinking in-depth and from different angles and perspectives.

While these skills were emphasised by most respondents irrespective of their current workplace employment, those in non-academic settings were more likely than their counterparts in academia to report that the PhD - and mainly these skills developed during the PhD - enabled them to make a difference in the workplace.

This seems contradictory, but it might not be.

Doctorate holders can be innovative individually, but might not be able to make a difference in the academic setting being at an early career stage in universities that are resistant to change.

In contrast, in non-academic employment where a more diversified workforce in terms of qualification levels can be expected, the PhD experience was perceived as adding value in distinguishing oneself from colleagues.

For example, a PhD graduate working in a Greek ministry reported that the PhD had helped him to be more critical and use his research skills to fulfil tasks compared to non-PhD graduates. Respondents working in the private sector also emphasised how the ability to think from different perspectives and solve problems were points that differentiated them from their counterparts.

The interviewees felt that they provided added value and that their advanced abilities were recognised and appreciated in non-academic workplaces. This suggests that there were wider benefits for employers in deploying such highly qualified personnel, implying reputation enhancement and knowledge spill-overs through the diversity of personnel.

Social impact of the PhD

The social impact that the PhD had on the respondents could be understood in three ways: a) development of social skills (communication, presentation); b) accessing professional networks and building personal relationships; and c) societal recognition.

During the PhD period, candidates find themselves involved in teaching undergraduates and postgraduate students, presenting their research to colleagues and different audiences and networking during conferences and academic events.

These activities enhanced the interpersonal and communication skills of respondents and facilitated them in becoming a member of highly esteemed networks that were considered invaluable for social and professional life beyond the PhD.

When respondents were asked about the impact and benefits of the PhD, all female respondents referred to social relationships, reporting how during the PhD they met their partners and very good friends and how they boosted collaboration and cooperation with colleagues.

From a less positive perspective, they perceived the PhD as an activity that limited their leisure time and the ability to socialise beyond the academic community. Only two men working abroad shared a similar concern about limited opportunities to have a family life and reconcile their academic career with living near family and friends.

Interestingly, a small number of male respondents - who were working in the Greek private sector - reported that the PhD provided high status in societal circles possibly because the PhD is not a degree often required in the private sector, as illustrated below:

"For example in some social circles, I believe it is considered as an advantage, let's say as social status [...] when they introduce you somewhere, it is mentioned that you have also done this."

Personal development

Participants highlighted personal development gains they had made through their PhD, such as maturity and independence.

In addition, they reported further development of perseverance, persistence, time management and organisational skills among others. These skills were utilised not only in the workplace but also in their everyday lives.

For example, respondents reported how the purchase of a domestic appliance was often completed after extensive research and increased scrutiny and how they thought methodically even about bureaucratic processes - for example, completing and submitting documents to public services - in order to optimise the time and effort involved.

In addition, personal satisfaction in their doctoral achievement, self-awareness and self-actualisation through meeting professional aspirations and performing self-fulfilling employment roles were also reported as invaluable aspects of pursuing this qualification.

To sum up, research has been pre-occupied with the returns of doctoral degrees in financial terms, but there is limited information about the impact of the PhD beyond these terms.

This research provides examples of PhD gains and impact in terms of transferrable skills, social life and personal development. In this way, it is shown that PhD graduates in their reflective accounts identify a plethora of different benefits, which reflect the unique and individualised experience of a doctoral degree.

It should be mentioned though that these findings are limited to Greek PhD graduates in their early career paths and larger scale research is required to get a better understanding of the PhD incorporating ideally the perspectives of other stakeholders - employers, colleagues etc - beyond self-perceptions of PhD graduates.

* Dr Charikleia Tzanakou is a research fellow at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. She is interested in transitions from higher education to the labour market, academic careers and gender. This article was first published on the European Research Area blog.