Posted 24/02/2021 by: Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington

Co-authored by Pat Buckley and Inger Mewburn and the PostAc team at ANU

It wasn't a strong beginning. As startups go, you probably wouldn't have rated it a chance. Just over 100 years ago, the modern doctorate was created as a destination degree for the worthy and the solid. Since then, it has remained the edgy member of the global degree suite, with some folks swearing by its intoxicating powers, and others wondering whether it is worth the effort.

Well, as we know, some startups flounder and fall over quickly, and others morph and hit their stride after a slow start. The doctorate is just starting to hit its stride, and it is important to continue to nudge it in the direction of success. That success flows - like any good start up - from knowing who it is for, and adaptation.

If you are starting to form knitted brows, it is possibly because you think that the doctorate serves one purpose: to educate future academics. But if you reframe your reckoning and acknowledge the broader demand for PhD graduates across business, not for profit, government and academic destinations, then the prospects for the degree look different.

The University of South Australia asked the PostAc team at ANU to analyse over 3 million job ads posted across Australia and within South Australia between 2017 and 2020. In 2017 there were 12 potential jobs for every research degree graduate. In the first quarter of 2020—as you would expect—the job market plunged, but it started to regain ground and hit around 2 potential jobs for every research degree graduate by mid-year.

Figure 1

Backing research capability really matters for our economy, and for broader society, particularly at this time. Part of that backing is understanding the enterprising nature of the PhD, and its market, talking about it slightly differently, and nudging its training requirements.

You have to start by acknowledging that you likely won’t see ‘has PhD’ in the essential criteria for most jobs. Organisations do want research-degree graduates on account of the capabilities they develop through innovation in disciplinary or interdisciplinary knowledge. Pause for a moment and consider what would be on your capabilities wish list for PhD graduates. Then ask yourself whether they coincide with this 3-million job employer top 20 wish list from the UniSA/PostAc report:

1.     Building relationships

2.     Communication skills

3.     Planning

4.     Teamwork and collaboration

5.     Project management

6.     Stakeholder management

7.     Problem solving

8.     Business acumen

9.     Budgeting

10.  Organisation and time management skills

11.  Creativity

12.  Detail oriented

13.  Leadership

14.  Change management

15.  Mentoring

16.  Business development

17.  Decision making

18.  Rick management

19.  Customer service

20.  Data analysis

Consider, in turn, how well this list lines up in intent or in language with the Australian Qualifications Framework Level 10 Descriptors. Knowledge looms large in the AQF descriptors, as do autonomy and dissemination to other people. You need to know things, to think for yourself and to be able to explain things to other people. Employers—including university employers—might rightly want to see other capabilities emphasised, such as the need to forge and sustain collaborations; to mentor other people, to work through change with creative capabilities; to understand how to identify and strategize with risks; and to demonstrate computational thinking. These are also the right skills for founders of startups, too.

We should not assume that any one cluster of disciplines delivers these capabilities in spades. Take a look at the compound growth or loss of opportunities for research degree graduates from 2017–20.

ANZSIC First half 2020 2019 2018 2017 Average - normal % jobs first half 2020
State Government Administration 245 731 475 224 477 103%
Hospitals (Except Psychiatric Hospitals) 161 411 259 224 298 108%
Computer System Design and Related Services 94 246 139 150 178 105%
Engineering Design and Engineering Consulting Services 70 227 244 248 240 58%
Other Transport Equipment Manufacturing n.e.c. 52 206 17 59 94 111%
Banking 75 180 167 158 168 89%
Accounting Services 39 125 116 181 141 55%
Central Government Administration 23 117 89 87 98 47%
Scientific Research Services 11 115 159 141 138 16%
Local Government Administration 15 110 64 113 96 31%
Aircraft Manufacturing and Repair Services 14 80 33 13 42 67%
Water Supply 1 79 55 83 72 3%
Oil and Gas Extraction 16 75 22 13 37 87%
Other Social Assistance Services 71 60 31 54 48 294%
General Insurance 15 53 46 36 45 67%
Shipbuilding and Repair Services 10 52 96 118 89 23%
Other Machinery and Equipment Repair and Maintenance 5 52 18 33 34 29%
Investigation and Security Services 26 44 21 15 27 195%
Supermarket and Grocery Stores 22 42 13 28 28 159%
Other Telecommunications Network Operation 15 37 35 26 33 92%
Public Administration 14 37 20 21 26 108%
Credit Union Operation 11 33 6 1 13 165%
Management Advice and Related Consulting Services 47 31 14 29 25 381%
Mining 5 30 32 27 30 34%
Other Health Care Services n.e.c. 5 28 15 22 22 46%
Iron Ore Mining 3 27 36 94 52 11%
Gas Supply 0 26 9 4 13 0%
Defence 11 25 78 79 61 36%
Depository Financial Intermediation 6 25 8 28 20 59%
Electricity Distribution 4 24 22 14 20 40%
Health Care and Social Assistance 25 23 28 24 25 200%
Other Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction 16 21 22 72 38 83%
Other Agriculture and Fishing Support Services 14 21 17 21 20 142%
Pharmaceutical, Cosmetic and Toiletry Goods Retailing 2 19 14 9 14 29%
Electricity Supply 6 17 31 21 23 52%
Paper Bag Manufacturing 3 17 2 9 9 64%
Education and Training 5 16 11 5 11 94%
Special School Education 0 14 16 0 10 0%
Educational Support Services 1 13 5 3 7 29%
Legal Services 5 12 22 23 19 53%
Pharmaceutical and Toiletry Goods Wholesaling 4 12 21 12 15 53%
General Practice Medical Services 2 11 18 26 18 22%
Wine and Other Alcoholic Beverage Manufacturing 4 11 17 14 14 57%
Air and Space Transport 2 11 11 2 8 50%
Insurance and Superannuation Funds 2 11 6 6 8 52%
Other Public Order and Safety Services 6 11 7 3 7 171%
Cement and Lime Manufacturing 0 11 9 1 7 0%
Secondary Education 1 11 5 3 6 32%
Newspaper Publishing 0 11 0 0 4 0%

Australia’s traditional business strengths in finance, services and energy shine through. As argued in Marnie’s previous blog, these old-new industries are driving innovations in areas such as cybersecurity, digital supply-chain management, and personalisation.

It is timely to consider the emphasis we place on particular capabilities in PhD training and academic development. And it is also important to ask how we might help the PhD to lean more into the future by making some fine-tuned adjustments to admissions, training, and the nature of the thesis.

At the University of South Australia, we have introduced the Project-based PhD as part of the Enterprise Hub initiative. It’s a slight adaptation to more traditional approaches, beginning with admissions. Rather than wait for individual students to come to our door—and treating them to the slowest admissions process for any kind of degree—we have switched to a recruitment model in which they apply to be a part of a project team, or to propose a project for a team. Training is being optimised to focus on the capabilities and futures orientation that great employees, founders, and academics need. Slight adjustments to the thesis model must our next consideration, and specifically, providing all students with enhanced opportunities to disseminate and further build the impact of their work. How can dissertation format and mode step up to the challenge of broadened conceptions of the PhD?

The PhD is a 100-year start poised for the next transformation.

Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington

Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington is the strategic and operational leader across research activities at the University of South Australia. Her role is to design and deliver approaches that help staff and research students alike to engage with industry, government and community to deliver novel and transformational solutions to problems, and to change the ways that we think about the world.

Archive


Tag cloud