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Research councils seek to define the value of their PhD funding

Research Councils UK is investigating the impact of its PhD funding with a survey of those who graduated seven years ago.

“Any government body gets asked about the value of its investments, and for us, investment in PhDs is a big one,” explains Iain Cameron, RCUK’s head of research careers and diversity.

RCUK and the UK higher education funding councils intend to gauge PhD impact by finding out about the eventual career choices of doctoral graduates from 2004-05 and by talking to their employers. They will also collect evidence on the career trajectories of these PhD graduates.

“About 52 per cent of PhD graduates are working outside of academia more or less straight away after graduation,” says Cameron. “What we don’t really know much about are job changes and movement over time.”

Cameron believes this information will be important for today’s PhD students. “It’s very often the case that if you ask PhD students what their job aspirations are, a significant number will say academic careers, probably a much higher proportion than will actually end up in academic careers. It’s about opening people’s eyes up to the real jobs that people with PhDs actually do.”

Gill Clarke, vice-chairwoman of the UK Council for Graduate Education, says the survey also offers an opportunity to address perceptions of doctoral graduates. “Sometimes one hears that employers aren’t very satisfied with PhD graduates, but you never really hear which employer, and it’s often not very evidence based,” she says. “I think a difficulty for universities is describing what extra you get if you employ someone with a doctorate, compared with somebody with a bachelors degree or a masters. I’m not sure whether employers realise what a good deal they get sometimes from PhD graduates.”

RCUK will consider feeding its findings back into its doctoral training structures. “There’s quite a lot of change in the way we fund doctoral training at the moment, and the emphasis is very much on improving the quality of the training, making it more relevant and producing graduates that are more fit for purpose,” says Cameron.

But for Clarke, the extent to which PhD training is tailored to meet employer demands is a divisive issue. “There are some who think the principal purpose of doing a PhD should be preparing you for employment, whereas there will be others who will say it’s about the pursuit of knowledge,” she says. “However, many people working with PhD candidates believe these dual aims are compatible.”