PhD Not Always a Job Guarantee :(((((

Thursday, September 13, 2012 Laurence Bianchini

Between 1998 and 2008, the number of PhD students increased by an average of 40% in OECD member countries. At the same time, job creation declined in the field of higher education and research. There is reason to worry about career prospects for new graduates. In the private sector, PhDs long suffered from a lack of visibility and recognition. Even though their skills have gradually been given more credit, this progress does not compensate for the dissatisfactory professional prospects and the years of frustration generated by precarious employment.


french version :

This article is a translation of “Le doctorat ne rime pas toujours avec emploi” available at: was translated from French into English by Mayte Perea López.


Young students in the 80’s were often told that by the time they entered the employment market, a large number of teachers would have retired. Since then, some disillusionment has set in. This Generation Y is sometimes even referred to as the lost generation… Indeed, the young people making up this generation are entering the job market in the midst of an economic crisis. The defining features of this period are, first, a crisis of confidence and, second, distrust toward the way our societies work globally. So, where are these babyboomer teachers who were expected to give their jobs to the younger generation, now facing a sharp increase in the employment rate?

In France, the PhD is the third cycle of higher education. It generally prepares students to become teachers in the field of higher education (lecturer, professor) or researchers. At the crossroads between knowledge creation and knowledge transmission, these positions are of critical importance. In 2007, the unemployment rate was higher for PhDs than for Master’s graduates, showing that the increase in unemployment was linked to the increase in the level of degree. This abnormal tendency, then referred to as the “French exception”, according to the French Center of Strategic Analysis (CAS), has since been reversed. The study “Enquête 2010 génération 2007” carried out by the Céreq (Center for Studies and Research on Qualifications) shows that in 2010, in France, 5% of PhD graduates were unemployed three years after entering the job market. Even though the overall unemployment rate for PhDs is lower than the national rate, it is important to note that the field and the type of contract is a strong determinant in the outcome of a job search. For instance, the unemployment rate is 12% for PhDs who graduated three years ago in humanities and social science. Conversely, PhDs who divide their work time between the public and the private sector, and who benefitted from a CIFRE scholarship (Industrial Agreements for Training Through Research), find a job much faster. In 2010, 86% of them found employment in less than three months.

The Ph.D. degree is the highest academic degree awarded by universities. source: chekobero/Flickr



A Canadian article dealing with career prospects for PhD graduates and overqualification of students approaches the problem from a different perspective: Why try to convince the youth that they should start a PhD if the sector is not recruiting enough graduates? Between 2004 and 2008 in Canada, the number of enrollments in PhD programs grew by an average of 5,1% per year. The increase in the number of higher education teaching job offers has not been able to keep up with this figure. The consequence of all this is the lengthening of the duration of post-doctoral jobs for those who still want to enter the field of academic research or higher education. In their job search, new graduates will therefore compete with post-doctoral researchers who sometimes have 6 or 7 years of experience, and have been working very hard, under insecure contracts, to gain experience for their resumes and expand their list of publications. This unfair competition involves young PhD doctors becoming, in turn, old post-doctoral researchers.

This bottleneck effect at the entry of the academic world is visible in numerous countries. In the United States, research centers have taken advantage of this tendency and employ a large majority of post-doctoral researchers, a docile workforce that functions under the direction of a few rare tenured professors. In France, according to the report “Repères et Références Statistiques 2012” (Statistical Indicators and References 2010), the number of enrollments increased in the “licence” program (3-year undergraduate program) and stagnated in the “master” program (2-year graduate program). In the doctoral program, the number of enrollments experienced an increase until 2007 and has been slightly declining since then. As for the number of students enrolled in scientific PhD programs, it remains relatively constant. Forecasts on the evolution of the number of PhD students for the coming years are very pessimistic and a loss of about one third of PhD students is expected between 2007 and 2017*. Law seems to be the only field spared from this disaffection.

What about other job opportunities? In Canada, only 7 to 8% of the research staff in the industrial sector have a PhD. So companies in the Research & Development sector do not employ the excess of young doctoral graduates. In France, the problem is aggravated by the fact that PhDs, in their job search, have to compete with students from engineering schools. These students are younger and have been trained to successfully enter the professional world with presentation techniques (how to behave in an interview, how to write a resume, etc.) and a more professionally oriented program. In France, according to the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), “more than half of researchers in companies come from engineering schools.” Only 13% of researchers have a PhD, a quarter of these dealing with health. In addition, among the doctors whose PhD is in a field other than health, 25% studied in an engineering school before enrolling for a PhD program.


New PhDs from the PRES Sorbonne Universty recently graduated. crédits photos : Olivier Jacquet / Paris-Sorbonne

PhD sorbonne

France trains about 11,000 PhDs each year, as opposed to 15,000 in the United Kingdom and 25,000 in Germany. France is therefore not particularly rich in terms of R&D in its own territory. In addition, the economy of our western societies is strongly oriented toward the service sector. In France in 2010, 39% of PhDs who had graduated 3 years earlier worked in the private sector. Apart from R&D, the first alternative fields to which people with doctorates can turn to find a job are project management, scientific strategic planning, computing, etc. But it seems that our service societies are not able to offer their PhDs jobs that require their level of studies. The term “overqualified” is used to refer to the gap between the education level of employees and the qualifications required for the job they hold. As studies are long and sometimes very expensive, overqualification is often a very difficult situation to live through.

PhD training is still often little-known by private sector employers. Germany is known to give more recognition to the work of its doctorate holders. In the past few years, several initiatives launched by industrialized countries have made it easier for PhDs to integrate the private sector and different branches of the working world. In France, since 2009, the doctoral contract includes “the possibility of getting involved in activities that are complementary to their research work, that is to say technology transfer, consulting or expertise missions for companies or local authorities, and of course teaching.” Today, says Deborah Buszard, teacher at the College of Sustainability of Dalhousie University, “PhD students do have to continue to deepen their knowledge in their field, but they also need to develop more diversified skills in terms of entrepreneurship, flexibility and understanding of the economy.” Students must prepare beforehand for the continuation of their career outside academic research.

To find out more, we invite you to have a look at our interview (in french) of three young PhD students who chose to get involved in doctoral missions.



Generally speaking, doctoral missions and training offered during the PhD aim at enabling young students to develop attractive skills for companies. This offers them the opportunity to gain experience in other professional environments in order to better adapt to them. PhDs have a solid and very diversified training. However, for their training to be recognized by companies, they need to be familiar enough with the environment to be able to present their training and skills in an attractive and understandable manner.

It is difficult to guess what the future holds for doctoral degree holders. In France, it is obvious that their profiles need to be given more credit in the private sector. However, it has been observed that in other countries like Canada, where PhDs are not competing with graduates from engineering schools, it is just as hard for them to find a job. In a knowledge-based society, having a large number of higher degree graduates benefits the entire society. But the tension generated by overqualification and the lack of prospects leads to the marginalization of PhD students whose choices are sometimes considered as strange. Should we continue to support the professionalization of this degree? What kind of systems should be implemented to give value to these highly qualified experts and put them at the heart of our economy?


*Sources :

Prévisions des effectifs dans l’enseignement supérieur pour les rentrées de 2008 à 2017 2017

Repères et références statistiques 2012

Etude Céreq « Equête 2010 génération 2007″

Find out more:

Le Canada décerne-t-il trop de doctorats?

Economie du savoir ou démesure doctorale ?

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