Despite the bleak economic picture, the outlook for PhD grads continues to look rosy. Tim Rogers discovers that more and more PhD holders are filling roles in a variety of industries far away from university campuses


While the PhD qualification has traditionally led graduates to a career in academia or academic related research, demand from the private and public sectors, has opened up a variety of opportunities.

There has always been an assumption that the majority of those graduating from university and grad school with a PhD remain in an academic environment. However, evidence from the UK, published in June 2009 indicates that a PhD degree genuinely qualifies its holder for an enormously wide range of careers. The report, What do researchers do? indicates that employment patterns vary enormously by subject area, with more computer science PhD graduates, for example, employed as IT professionals, while almost half of all social science PhD holders gained employment in education.

Over one-third of all PhD graduates were engaged in research-specific roles, while 23% worked as research staff in higher education institutions and 14% as lecturers in higher education. Although the education sector was the largest employer of physical sciences and engineering PhD's, with 41% of graduates absorbed in this field in 2007, a significant proportion of graduates were also employed in manufacturing, with 25% and business, finance and IT, with a further 20%.

One of the academic fields of PhD study that has been in particular demand by private sector employers in recent years is biotechnology. According to Australia-based Dr John Ballard, founding member of BioAngels, a not-for-profit association of business executives offering investment opportunities in the life sciences, there are more people employed by the five biotechnology companies located in one suburb in South Australia than the combined employment in the biochemistry, microbiology and biotechnology departments of all three South Australian universities.

Many international students hope that the qualification will result in a higher salary on graduation. Professor Mark Western, from Australia's University of Queensland, confirms that on completion of a PhD from one of the eight leading Australian universities, students attracted an average salary of US$56,000 in an online survey conducted in 2008. The majority of PhD graduates were satisfied with their jobs and were earning salaries that they were happy with.

While countries around the world are tightening up their immigration procedures and only offering international students the opportunity to work in the country they have studied in for short periods of time after graduation, at the PhD level, the opportunity for long-term migration is greatly increased.  Skills shortages dominate many of the key developed economies with the result that highly skilled PhD graduates are both attractive and increasingly in demand by countries whose workforce lacks the expertise in key areas.

Universities and grad schools seeking to secure the next generation of academic talent continue to recruit directly from the pool of graduating PhD students. However, the current economic situation may be affecting the appointment of new academic members of staff in a number of countries.  The level of competition for jobs in US universities and colleges in particular is likely to increase. The picture is somewhat different in other countries. In both Australia and Germany, the greying of the academic population is already resulting in a greater demand for new academic members of staff to replace those retiring.

While the prospects for PhD graduates seeking academic careers varies from country to country, the continuing growth of a globalized higher education market has had a positive impact on the appointment of new academic members of staff. Emerging universities in countries as diverse as Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and those throughout Central Asia are seeking new doctoral graduates to help build their reputations.