An academic career is only one of many possible career choices after a doctoral dissertation. Skills gained during a doctoral education are of use within many different professions. In the US an educational background within the humanities is common amongst business leaders.

Where do the doctors go?

Svenska 2017-10-23

Since the 1990s, the number of doctoral degrees awarded in Sweden has doubled. At the same time, the opportunity to continue academic research has decreased. Curie has examined both the value of the title of doctor and the post-doctoral career prospects in the labour market.

Having a doctoral degree is becoming increasingly common. In 2016, almost 1.3 percent of the Swedish population aged 25-64 possessed a doctoral degree. This corresponds to almost 64,000 people, which is more than double the figure from the beginning of the 1990s.

During the 1990s, the higher education sector expanded and there was a growing need within the academic world for doctoral graduates. As the expansion began to slow, the number of people in the regular labour market with a doctoral degree increased.

A 2012 study conducted by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education showed that, of those who had completed their doctoral degree in 2007, approximately half were working either within state government administration or for state-owned companies. One quarter worked in the private sector, and a little more than one in five worked within county or municipal councils. A new report is expected to be completed at the end of this year.

Picking problems apart

Martin Wikström, expert in research policy at the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA), took his doctoral degree in neurobiology at Karolinska Institutet in 1999 and has long been interested in research policy. He initially continued with his research career, including a postdoctoral position in Bristol (UK) followed by working as a researcher and group leader at Karolinska Institutet. Eventually, however, his interest in research policy took over.

He realised that it was time to change career. Since 2007, he has worked as a science and technology attaché in Washington DC, been responsible for research and education policy at the Swedish Association of Scientists, and been the thematic director for research policy and life science at the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis. Since 2015, he has been working with the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

“During doctoral studies, one learns to think seriously, to pick problems apart and to analyse them. This skill is a valuable asset in a great many different areas beyond the academic world”, he points out.

In the field of life science, it is practically a necessity to hold the title of Doctor if one wants to work with research and development, and perhaps even for other senior positions too, he argues.

Education is always of value

Marita Teräs, with labour market responsibility at the Swedish Association of Scientists, also works with career issues and likes to draw attention to the important role played by research in working life.

“There is a need for research results beyond the academic sector – the world of work is dependent on them. There is also, therefore, a need for people to make the move and to leave the academic world.”

About one quarter of the Swedish Association of Scientists’ members have a research education and can be found in a range of different professions and industries, both within and beyond the academic sector. In a study from 2010/2011, 87 % of those members with a doctoral degree stated that this education had been important for their first employment to a post following graduation.

“An education is always of value and is never a bad thing.”

At the same time, she is aware that there may be a fear that the applicant is overqualified. This fear derives from either the likelihood that the candidate is more knowledgeable than the employer, or the idea that the application itself is a second choice – that the candidate’s original preference would have been to pursue an academic career.

She recommends, therefore, a careful analysis of one’s own competence. Both the employer and the applicant should ask themselves how these skills can be of benefit to the business, she states.

Other credentials

The principal credentials within academia are the scientific publications. One important part of the process of moving beyond the academic world is the realisation that this is not the case in the labour market.

“There, other credentials are given greater prominence, and it is important that these are identified and brought into focus instead in one’s CV and during interviews”, advises Marita Teräs.

The specialisation inherent in a doctoral degree also means that the process of finding a job that corresponds to the applicant’s skills may take longer.

For her own part, she wishes that there were more doctoral graduates in environmental subjects who commit themselves to research and development, both in the public and the private sectors.

“As it is now, a certain number of doctoral graduates in the environmental sciences are working with management and supervision – for government authorities, for example. But there is also a need for more research and development within this sector; we should be taking environmental issues as seriously as we do health issues”, she asserts.

Many possible career options

According to the study conducted by the Swedish Association of Scientists, only half of all those with a research degree stated that they would choose the same form of education if they could choose again. The main reason for this is dissatisfaction with the career opportunities (or that the respondent is now interested in another subject). Only one in three feel that they are well-prepared for working life.

Marita Teräs stresses that an academic career is just one career choice among many other possibilities following graduation.

“We should not think of an academic career as being something more refined. The important thing is to create a career that one is happy with.”

According to Martin Wikström, the belief that a research degree must almost always lead to an academic career still remains at some educational institutions. At the same time, he himself has supervised students who have made it clear that they intended to pursue a career in business following graduation.

“I don’t see a problem with this – there are different things one can do after a research degree. Much has happened in the past 10-15 years and we are beginning to take a different view of post-doctoral careers.”

Martin Wikström also rues the fact that it can often be difficult to move between academia and other sectors. He believes that this is prevented by the presence of barriers, as well as by a certain mutual lack of understanding for the other side.

The humanistic dimension

The Humtank think tank has not performed any mapping of the labour market for humanities doctors but Magnus P. Ängsal – researcher in linguistics at the University of Gothenburg and member of Humtank – emphasises the organisation’s fundamental view.

“There is a humanistic dimension to every social issue. In everything that happens around us, people are involved, which means that we should be investigating the human dimension more. Humanities scholars often represent an untapped resource.”

He raises the example of automation and digital services in healthcare.

“Of course, we can talk about efficiency and economic gains, but what are the consequences of automation, for example, for values other than those that are purely economic?”

There is, then, a need for philosophers and linguists who are able to communicate. Similarly, he also points out that theologians and ethnologists can contribute with important knowledge with regard to encounters with people from different countries.

In a recently published report, Humtank investigated which skills are in demand by Swedish business leaders. The main five are business acumen, problem solving, creativity, the ability to express oneself in Swedish in speech and in writing, and critical thinking. With the exception of business acumen, all these skills are acquired as part of a doctoral education, regardless of the subject.

“One devotes oneself to thinking, as well as learning to formulate questions that will lead to an interesting answer.”

Other activities may lead to other jobs

Two years ago, Sharon Rider, professor of philosophy at Uppsala University, produced the report The profitable humanities – Humanists in the labour market in Sweden and the USA. In this report, she argues that the need for the humanities in Sweden is greater than is generally understood. In her view, Sweden’s labour market is poor at taking advantage of the expertise available.

She believes that there are two prerequisites for a graduate with a humanities doctorate to succeed outside of the academic sector: that one has managed to complete the research education within the designated time period and that one has acquired other work-related experience beyond just research.

“It could be that one has sat on a committee, taught students, or written and published other sorts of texts than just scientific articles.”

She explains that, far from increasing, the number of doctoral students within the humanities has actually decreased in the past 30 years. This is due to the fact that the humanities are not given access to the same type of substantial external grants as has become the rule for the financing of doctoral students within medicine or technology.

According to Sharon Rider, the number of doctors should really be proportionate to the growing needs of the labour market, and more investigative and managerial positions should be awarded to those with a humanities doctorate.

“A doctor of philosophy can study and get up to speed with, let’s say, the economic and political conditions at a county council within just a month or two. After four years of research studies, the ability to get to grips with complex conditions is so well developed that material that is completely foreign to them does not present any significant challenge”, she says.

Similarly, organisations such as museums and other cultural institutions should be led by relevant specialists – i.e. research graduates in, for example, art, musicology and literature.

“The labour market is inflexible and, unfortunately, lacks imagination and transparency. It is expected that a communications officer must have a degree in communication science, that a CEO must be a qualified economist, and so on.”

She compares the situation to that in the USA, where many business leaders have a humanities background and a better all-round education. This is largely due to the fact that elementary studies in the USA provide a good general education within a number of subjects. It is usually not until the final few years that one begins to specialise, unlike in Sweden where students choose their direction as early as at upper secondary school.

Education is a must

Germany is often described in Sweden as a country of learning with a higher level of all-round education. Katarina Löbel agrees that education is valued there, and that high skill levels are key to a successful career, even within the business world. She herself has a doctorate in educational science and is currently working with AQAS, the Agency for Quality Assurance through the Accreditation of Study Programmes. Her background was perfectly matched to her new job.

“Within education science, the title of Doctor is held in high regard – perhaps more highly than in other disciplines – and is an absolute necessity for the type of job that I have”, she explains.

This is partly to do with being able to meet head teachers and other senior post-holders on the same level, and partly to do with authority. During her travels abroad, she has noticed that the title of Doctor is afforded an even higher status in other countries and that it is important for titles to be used properly. In the countries of the former Soviet bloc or in Arab countries, she would not be able to lead a project without her title of Doctor, and most people will turn directly to her if she is the member of the delegation with a title. She was, however, a little surprised by the situation in her neighbouring country Austria.

“There, it is incredibly important to use the correct title, even in everyday situations.”

But, when it comes to an application process, it is not the title itself that is important but, above all, the subject-specific knowledge. Being able to demonstrate one’s competence and experience can be a long, drawn-out process, requiring lots of certification.

She would advise anyone considering taking a doctoral degree to do so, as it ultimately pays off if one wishes to achieve more senior positions.

“If, on the other hand, one isn’t interested in the actual research education, it is best to not bother – it is, after all, a challenging form of education and a tough life.”

Text: Natalie von der Lehr
Photo: Pedro Veliça

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