Margaret Kiley

  • Completing a doctorate: For what?

    Margaret Kiley
    The Australian National University

    Session 3a

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 10.10-11.10

    Research paper

    Themes: Lifelong learning and employability, Learning for learning's sake

    Traditionally, completing a PhD; those “three magic letters” as Nettles and Millett (2006) argue, was a precursor to an academic career. However, recent data suggest that, depending on the country, approximately one third of doctoral graduates is engaged in academic work. What about the other two thirds?

    There are three related issues; one relates to the graduates who are not employed as academics, another relates to the graduates who are active in research, not necessarily as academics, and the third relates to those graduates for whom employment is not an issue. This paper will examine data related to the three types of doctoral graduates and the ‘for what’ questions related to the learning and skills that doctoral graduates will have developed during candidature.

    As an example of the first of the three issues above, using Australia as an example, of the 1998 doctoral graduate cohort, 33% were employed in an academic position and 67% in a non-academic role (GCCA, 1999) . Hence what might this mean for our doctoral programs and the research learning environments that we provide for our candidates?

    Regarding the second issue Auriol (2007) , in an OECD report suggests that on average across the OECD the percentage of doctoral graduates active in research, although not necessarily teaching, is approximately 70% (p. 17). What does this mean for the research education experience of doctoral candidates?

    An example of the third issue relates to the age of doctoral candidates. Many older doctoral candidates are already in full employment and not necessarily looking to change. Interestingly Australia has the youngest doctoral population of the nine countries surveyed in the OECD report with 40% under 45 years and the USA the oldest with 39% over 55 years and 32% under 45 (p. 7). For many of these candidates, employment opportunities are not the main issue motivating them to undertake a PhD, but what does motivate them?

    While we can argue over the finer points of the data, it appears that the majority of doctoral graduates do not end up in an academic position, hence one might ask a number of questions regarding the reasons for undertaking a doctoral award and the values of such an award, for other than academic employment. This paper will outline, from several studies, possible answers to the question ‘Completing a doctorate: For what?


    • Auriol, L. (2007). Labour market characteristics and international mobility of doctorate holders: Results of seven countries. Paris: OECD.
    • Graduate Careers Council of Australia. (1999). Career paths for PhD graduates: A scoping study. Melbourne: Australian Research Council.
    • Nettles, M., & Millett, C. (2006). Three magic letters: Getting to PhD. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.