Higher education and research have come to the forefront of international debates about economic growth. There has been a growing consensus among policy-makers that post-industrial society requires more highly-educated people with technical and professional skills in a knowledge-based economy. Doctoral education has become of paramount significance in a world where knowledge becomes the new ‘fuel’, the ultimate economic renewable to economic growth leading to a knowledge-based economy (Brinkley, 2006; Leadbeater, 1999). While there is still no consensus on the relationship between human capital and economic growth, PhD holders who have accumulated substantial human capital through education have been identified as ‘one of the key actors behind the creation of knowledge-based economic growth’ (Auriol et al., 2010, p.13).
From the individual perspective, investment in doctoral education is rather costly – in terms of fees, subsistence and foregone earnings – and lengthy. Considering that individuals might yield less returns to doctoral investment compared to a Master’s degree in some subjects[i] (see O’Leary and Sloane, 2005) and also the increasing criticism that the doctorate has received by the media in terms of career prospects and doctoral attrition (FP, 2013; The Economist, 2010), it is important to identify and highlight benefits that doctoral experience entails beyond financial and career returns for the PhD graduates and a broader knowledge-based economy.
Limited information exists about the value of the PhD for the individuals beyond pecuniary terms. Raddon and Sung (2009) have remarked the deficiency of information on the personal value of the doctorate together with the social and cultural impact of studying at this level in order to highlight the impact of PhD graduates. In their synthesis review of career choices and impact of PhD graduates in the UK they wrote: ‘..we still lack in-depth examinations of some complex areas including: In-depth examination of the direct impact of PhD graduates in the workplace and the ‘value added’ of employing these individuals; …Close study of the personal impact and value of the PhD, particularly over the long run’ (Raddon and Sung, 2009, p.iv)
Among the research objectives of my PhD project (Tzanakou, 2012) was to examine the benefits and impact that the PhD had on Greek PhD graduates[ii] from both UK and Greek universities in their early career paths. This was a mixed methods research project including an online survey (244 responses[iii]) and 26 semi structured follow up interviews with a subsample of the respondents[iv].
Enhancing transferrable skills
PhD holders identified further benefits of doctoral education beyond acquiring specialised knowledge. Such benefits include a set of transferrable skills: problem-solving, critical reasoning, thinking in-depth and from different angles and perspectives. While these skills were emphasised by most respondents irrespective of the current workplace employment, those in non-academic settings were more likely than their counterparts in academia to report that the PhD – and mainly these skills developed during the PhD – enabled them to make a difference in the workplace.
This seems contradicting but it might not be. Doctorate holders can be innovative individually but might not be able to make a difference in the academic setting being at an early career stage in universities that are resistant to change. In contrast, in non-academic employment where a more diversified workforce in terms of qualification levels can be expected, the PhD experience was perceived as added value in distinguishing oneself from colleagues. For example, a PhD graduate, working in a Greek Ministry reported that the PhD had helped him to be more critical and use research skills to fulfil tasks compared to non-PhD graduates. Respondents working in the private sector also emphasised how their ability to think from different perspectives and solve problems during their PhD were points that made them differentiate from their counterparts.
The interviewees felt that they provided added value and their advanced abilities were recognised and appeciated in non-academic workplaces. This suggests that there were wider benefits for employers entailed by deploying such highly qualified personnel, suggesting reputation enhancement and knowledge spill overs through the diversity of personnel.
Social impact of the PhD
The social impact the PhD had on the respondents could be decomposed in three ways: a) development of social skills (communication, presentation), b) accessing professional networks and building personal relationships and c) societal recognition. During the PhD period, PhD candidates find themselves involved into teaching undergraduates and postgraduate students, presenting their research to colleagues and different audiences and networking during conferences and academic events. These activities enhanced interpersonal and communication skills of respondents and facilitated them in becoming a member of highly esteemed networks that were considered invaluable for social and professional life beyond the PhD.
When respondents were asked about the impact and benefits of the PhD, all female respondents referred to social relationships reporting how during the PhD they met their partners and very good friends and how they boosted collaboration and cooperation with colleagues. From a less positive perspective, they perceived the PhD as an activity that limited their leisure time and the ability to socialise beyond the academic community. Only two men working abroad shared a similar concern about limited opportunities to make a family and reconcile academic career with living near to family and friends. Interestingly, a small number of male respondents – who were working in the Greek private sector – reported that the PhD provided high status to societal circles possibly because the PhD is not a degree often required in the private sector as illustrated in the example below:
‘For example in some social circles, I believe it is considered as an advantage, let’s say as social status […] when they introduce you somewhere, it is mentioned that you have also done this.’
Participants highlighted personal development gains through their PhD, such as maturity and independence. In addition, they reported further development of perseverance, persistence, time management and organizational skills among others. These skills were utilised not only in the workplace but also in their everyday lives. For example, respondents reported how a purchase of a domestic appliance was often completed after extensive research and increased scrutiny and how they thought methodically even about bureaucratic processes (e.g. completing and submitting documents to public services) in order to optimise time and effort involved.
In addition, personal satisfaction in their doctoral achievement, self-awareness and self-actualisation through meeting their professional aspirations and performing self-fulfilling employment roles were also reported as invaluable aspects of pursuing this qualification.
To sum up, research has been pre-occupied with the returns of doctoral degrees in financial terms but there is limited information about the impact of the PhD beyond these terms. This research provides examples of PhD gains and impact in terms of transferrable skills, social life and personal development. In this way, it is shown that PhD graduates in their reflective accounts identify a plethora of different benefits, which reflect the unique and individualised experience of a doctoral degree.
It should be mentioned though that these findings are limited to Greek PhD graduates in their early career paths and larger scale research is required to get a better understanding of the PhD incorporating ideally the perspectives of other stakeholders (employers, colleagues, etc) beyond self-perceptions of PhD graduates.
Dr. Charikleia Tzanakou is a Research Fellow, University of Warwick, UK. She is interested in transitions of higher education to the labour market, academic careers and gender.
- Anonymous. 2010. The Disposable Academic. The Economist. December 16
- Auriol, L. (2010). Careers of Doctorate Holders: Employment and Mobility Patterns. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers, No. 2010/4. [Online] Available drom: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5kmh8phxvvf5-en. [Accessed 03/03/2014].
- Brinkley I. 2006. Defining the knowledge economy. Knowledge economy programme report. The work foundation.
- Drezner D. 2013. Should you get a PhD. Foreign Policy. April 15.
- Leadbeater, C. 1999. Living on thin air, London: Viking, Penguin
- O’Leary, N. C. and Sloane P.J. 2005. The return to a university education in Great Britain. National Institute Economic Review, 193(1), 75–89.
- Raddon, A. & Sung, J. 2009. The career choices and impact of PhD graduates in the UK: A Synthesis Review.
- Tzanakou C. 2012 Beyond the PhD: the significance of boundaries in the early careers of highly qualified Greek scientists and engineers. PhD Thesis, University of Warwick.
- Walker, I. & Zhu, Y. 2010. Differences by degree: Evidence of the net financial rates of return to undergraduate study for England and Wales, Discussion paper series // Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, No. 5254
[i] For example, a Masters in Engineering and Technology (7.76%) provided a greater premium rather than a PhD (4.97%).
[ii] Doctoral education in Greece, in contrast to European countries, has maintained the master-apprenticeship model and seems not to have been influenced by doctoral reforms in Europe, which aimed at improving the quality of PhD studies. This supervision model along with the limited funding available for doctoral studentships and the absence of a regulatory framework are included among the main reasons that lead Greek PhD candidates either to dropout or to prolong their degree compared to those in the UK.
[iii] The profile of the survey respondents is summarised as following: 80% of the respondents completed their PhD in Greece, 20% in the UK, 75% men, 25% were women, more than 75% were 30-40 years old.
[iv] There is no comprehensive database of this population with contact information readily available, so a database of Greek PhD graduates in natural sciences and engineering from Greek and UK universities was developed for the purposes of this research. The data for Greek-educated PhD holders was derived from the National Documentation Centre which holds approximately 80% of doctoral theses. Due to the Data Protection Act, in terms of UK universities, Alumni centres and societies of foreign-educated Greek graduates forwarded and promoted the survey on behalf of the researcher. By those means, doctoral graduates were contacted to participate in an online survey to collect data on their PhD experience and transition to the labour market, achieving 244 responses. Unfortunately, it was difficult to identify Greek PhD graduates who completed their studies in the UK, thus only 50 of these had been UK-educated