Australia's Ph.D. Pipeline Problem

As would-be academics pile up short-term appointments after grad school, Australia grapples with the questions of whether it is giving too many doctorates and how to employ those who receive them.

January 23, 2013

In just two years, Omid Tofighian has held six different semesterlong contracts at universities in several countries. He's been told he needs to publish a book based on his Ph.D. thesis to shore up his chances of a more permanent position. But he's so busy chasing his tail he hasn't been able to work on the publisher's comments during that time.

"Slowly my dreams of working in academia are fading away," says Tofighian, who gained his doctorate from Leiden University in the Netherlands and is teaching this semester at two Australian institutions. "I've started thinking about getting a nonacademic job, maybe in government or a corporation. At least I might have some chance of having a life outside work."

Tofighian's situation is not unusual. Increasing casualization of the academic work force means it is increasingly common for doctoral graduates to spend years floating between jobs, unable to put down roots, buy a house or plan a family.

An Australian government-funded report on career pathways of Ph.D.s confirms that lack of job security is by far the worst aspect of aspiring academics.

"Most researchers face a succession of short-term contracts as they strive to forge a career," the report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies says. "Their chances of winning grants or fellowships are slim, and even lower if they have a limited record of publications."

It goes on: not enough positions for a pool of available talent; lack of continuity funding to carry researchers from one grant to the next; too much competition for too few grants.

"We were tasked with finding out how people in the sector are feeling about their careers. The report wasn't intended as a set of recommendations from the learned academies," says ACOLA's general manager, Jacques de Vos Malan.

"There are very strong feelings that far too many people are being pushed down the Ph.D. pipeline -- many more than can be absorbed when they come out the other end. The prevailing view is that you can never have enough researchers. Therefore the situation needs to be addressed at the outflow point, not by reducing the number going in."

However, Zlatko Skrbis, dean of graduate studies at the University of Queensland, says a judgment cannot be made about what is an appropriate number of Ph.D.s without an understanding of their career outcomes.

"We talk about graduate training as a strategic investment for the economy. Yet we understand very little about what happens (to) these people," Skrbis says.

He says a request to the federal government to fund a longitudinal study of Ph.D. graduates similar to a New Zealand project elicited no interest.

In 2001, 3,900 Ph.D.s were awarded in Australia. Ten years later, the figure had increased to 6,500.

Richard Strugnell, dean of graduate studies at the University of Melbourne, says he personally thinks Australia is producing too many Ph.D.s, but notes that the situation is not as bad as in other countries, such as the U.S.

"That's not to say any Ph.D. training is wasted; the academic rigor can be used in any environment," he says. "At the same time it is very expensive. We are training them on the assumption they are going into academia. But the majority won't. We just don't know where they end up."

The report also says that workload is a problem, and gets worse over time.

On the upside, it views working conditions and salaries in a mostly positive light.

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