The motivation for increasing the availability of doctoral studies is multidimensional. Leaving individual goals aside, the justification for the huge investment countries make in doctoral education is directed at improving teaching, increasing research output, and contributing to scientific development through innovation. The increasing presence of PhD holders in universities and research institutes reflect the demand for the active participation of highly trained staff.
In spite of the growing global emphasis on PhD education, information in regard to the output of PhD graduates remains relatively limited, especially in the developing world where, despite a seemingly endless quest for more PhDs, little has been studied about how doctoral candidates fare against expectations.
The expected benefits of doctoral education
Doctoral study is expected to offer a range of personal and strategic institutional advantages.A PhD can provide access to academic and non-academic jobs with many opportunities for meaningful contributions. Doctoral programs facilitate the production of academics and technocrats who can engage in various institutional activities and responsibilities.
The contribution of doctoral education to research output is widely acknowledged. That is partly why doctoral training is regarded as essential to an academic career and the cultivation of future researchers and professors.
Doctoral studies also serve as a pipeline for a workforce that will drive innovation and facilitate participation in the global knowledge economy. As a highly-trained group of people, PhD holders are considered critical in the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and technology.
This has enticed many countries to develop policies that enhance the massive expansion of PhD programs. Notable examples from the developing world are Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Mexico, Brazil, India, and China which has now surpassed the US in its annual production of PhD graduates.
Given the above general assumptions, what is the trajectory of PhD training and to what extent do PhD holders in Ethiopia deliver in the real world of work?
Ethiopia has a growing number of PhDs to respond to the demands of its planned development, not the least of which is its rapidly expanding higher education sector. Although government has had a target of getting to the level where 30% of the nearly 30,000 university staff will have a PhD, the current level stands at 15%.
A plan established by the ministry of education in 2008 promotes training at this level both within Ethiopia and abroad. Local universities now award more than 500 PhDs every year up from a low of 21 in 2010/11. Currently more than 3,000 students are pursuing doctoral studies at local universities. These numbers compare favorably with the production of PhD graduates in eight flagship universities in Sub-Saharan Africa- revealed in a study conducted by Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa(HERANA, 2014). While the exact number of people studying abroad is not known, the trend in Ethiopia is indicative of a strong inclination towards significantly increasing the number of PhD holders in the future.
Despite the encouraging trend, little is known about the performance of Ethiopian PhD holders. The recent survey by the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Technology of 908 Ethiopian PhD holders discovered an interesting array of facts.
Among the PhD holders who participated in the study, 24.3% completed their studies in Ethiopian universities and the rest were trained abroad. The primary funding for PhD studies were fellowships or scholarships obtained from foreign sources while the rest were funded by the Ethiopian government.
The majority (26.2%) studied natural sciences, followed by agricultural sciences (21.4%), social science (18%), engineering and technology (18%), medical and health sciences (6.9%), and humanities (8.7%). Nearly 80 percent of the PhD holders work in higher education while the rest are distributed in government offices (11.3%), private non- profit organization (5.6%), and business enterprises (2.1%). The unemployment rate among the PhD holders is 3%—not a negligible number.
The majority, 77% of the survey participants, indicated that their work involves research or experimental work while the remaining 23 % noted that their job does not involve these activities. However, 30% of those surveyed did not publish any articles during the period of the study, 2013- 2015—60 % had fewer than 10 publications.
Doctoral graduates also underperform in terms of innovation and knowledge creation. The study revealed that only 15% applied for patents, mainly between 1 to 5 applications. Only 13% were successful in obtaining patents.
In a similar vein, 95% of the patents obtained did not result in commercial products, processes, or a license. Only 2.6% managed to start one company and a meager 0.4% started two companies.
A variety of reasons were suggested to explain the poor performance in research and innovation.The PhD holders cited working conditions (26.2%), low remuneration (21%), limited job opportunities in research, absence of a research career structure (19%), and a lack of interest (2.9%)as key factors.Only a limited number of the PhD holders indicated satisfaction with their job and working conditions.
The Way Forward
Ethiopia’s plan to become a middle-income country by 2025 hinges on its ability to produce a highly trained workforce that can respond to the country’s complex needs. In line with the envisaged developmental needs, Ethiopian universities are currently tasked with increasing postgraduate opportunities, especially doctoral studies. In addition to raising the qualifications of academic staff, the government intends to set up research-intensive universities with postgraduate students representing 20% of enrollment and with 50% holding earned doctorates. Plans are also underway to establish research centers that will be joint ventures between universities and industry. These and other similar initiatives require the continued availability of PhD holders in the system.
However, national plans and pertinent sectoral or institutional needs cannot be met by merely increasing the number of PhD holders. Maximizing the benefits of PhD holders demands monitoring outputs, challenges and working environments to facilitate their contribution to institutional and national goals. Otherwise, more PhD holders without due consideration to their productivity and working conditions will simply remain an exercise in futility.