Where Do Postgraduates Go?

Postgrads go into a wide range of careers, so it’s not always easy to get an overview of where they end up. However, the recent report from Vitae, “What do researchers do? Doctoral graduate destinations and impact three years on” (online pdf) has a great comparison between PhDs, Masters and undergraduates, in 6 broad categories of occupations.

The categories are focused around those areas particularly popular with PhDs:

  • Research jobs in HE – this was for “research only” jobs and did not include lecturers (in other words, mainly research associate and research assistant roles)
  • Teaching in HE – this included both teaching only staff, and those who do lecturing and research ie the traditional academic role
  • Research outside HE – this included not only scientific R&D but also social science research organisations, or local government research posts etc
  • Teaching outside HE – either in schools, further education or private tuition
  • Other common doctoral occupations – this was a bit of a catch-all for functional managers plus specialist, technical, business and health professionals ie roles where you might expect a PhD to end up
  • Other occupations – the rest! Anything from writers and artists to science technicians and sales staff.

The survey covered 1,625 PhDs, 3,320 Masters and 12,575 undergraduates (with a 1st or a 2:1) who graduated in 2004/5 and were working in the UK in November 2008. Here’s what they found:

(click on the image for a sharper version)

“Other common doctoral occupations”
One thing which struck me was how similar the proportions going into “Other common doctoral occupations” were for both Masters and PhDs – and even undergrads. It’s clear that although these are occupations which are seen as “fitting” for a PhD, you don’t necessarily need a PhD to get into them.

The pessimistic view is that doing a PhD was a waste of time if you could get into those jobs with a Masters or undergraduate degree. The more optimistic view is that it opens up a wide range of jobs to consider, where postgraduates are commonly found, even if the ads don’t explicitly mention that you need a postgraduate degree. (You can guess that I’m a “half-full”, rather than a “half-empty” kinda gal…)

Working in Academia
It’s unsurprising that few undergraduates – or masters – are in academic roles, 3 years on from graduating (undergrads accounted for only 0.5% in HE, which is why you can’t see them on the graph!). At that stage,  even for those who eventually make it in academia, most will still be ploughing through a PhD.

However, it might look surprising that only just over 40% of PhDs are working in HE three years after graduating. In practice, we’ve known for a long time that, on average, most PhDs don’t become academics – but it does hide a more complicated picture.

The numbers going into research and/or teaching roles in academia varies widely by subject. I’ve charted:

  • University of Manchester PhD destination data, 6 months after graduating
  • UK PhD destination data, 6 months after graduating
  • UK PhD destination data, 3 years after graduating
  • In each case, split by broad discipline.

Compare and contrast:

Even before you click on the images to see them full size, it’s pretty easy to see that there’s a big difference between, say, social sciences and physical sciences and engineering.

The alternative headline statistic could be “over 60% of social science PhDs are working in academia, 3 years after graduating“. This still doesn’t give an indication of how many ultimately get permanent academic jobs, but it’s more promising than the overall average for all disciplines.

Why is this? Well, one reason is that there are far fewer humanities PhDs than science or engineering PhDs, so it’s unsurprising that a higher proportion of humanities PhDs go into academia than science PhDs. Plus, those in science and engineering also have more choice outside academia to use their discipline directly, including in cutting edge research outside academia.

What are your chances of making it in academia?
Of course, while you’re weighing up your chances of moving into, or out of academia, it’s important to remember that even though only 33% of PhDs in physical sciences and engineering are still in HE after 3 years, this will include future professors, and who knows, Nobel prize winners?

If that’s your aim, you just need to figure out what you need to do now to give yourself the best chance of standing out from the competition. Have a look at “Have you got what it takes?” for Masters/undergrads or for PhDs (both pdfs taken from our website, An Academic Career) for tough questions to ask yourself and suggestions for improving your chances.

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One comment on “Where Do Postgraduates Go?

  1. Great Summary of the data here and much easier to follow than the original report.

    I think the closing paragraph is the most important take home message – ask yourself tough questions about whether you really want an academic career. I always thought that I did but it wasn’t until I was in an unhappy postdoc that I really came to understand that it wasn’t for me. I could have worked that out a lot sooner if I’d just been more honest with myself instead of floating along taking the easy option every time. I hope it’s okay to post a link here but I wrote a blog post about my story if anyone is interested. – http://www.linkhigher.com/posts/postgraduate-career-options-part-3-academia

    Once again, thanks for this great post.

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