PhD Supply and Demand

03 January 2011


Recently I attended the graduation of a colleague. These ceremonies are clearly important to many students and their families and are one of the few rituals that remain in my life. This graduation was also special as Professor Sir Paul Callaghan was awarded an honourary doctorate and gave a speech to the graduates. He's a very good speaker and frankly addressed his terminal illness in a positive and honest way - very inspirational.

A standard feature of the graduation is the reciting of the main focus of research for each of the graduating PhD students. This year's graduation may be the last time this happens however, as the number of graduates has grown, reflecting the massive growth in PhDs, now well over 700 underway at Victoria, close to one on average for each academic, well over that in practice given the the number of academics without PhDs (and who thus can't supervise a PhD). While I hope them every success, and I understand the pressures and incentives from the Government underpinning this growth, I also worry about the future they face. I've talked previously about my experience, and now the Economist has also published a piece on the over-supply of PhDs in America.

I don't think a PhD is a 'waste of time', but increasingly we're going to have to look at how we help prepare postgraduate students for harsh realities on their completion. The Government may be pushing universities to generate more PhDs but they're really after job growth and economic benefit to the country as a whole and as the Economist notes, a good Masters may be a far better option for those who never want to be academics.

In contrast to the Economist's US perspective, David Scott's analysis of the New Zealand situation suggests that, at least over the last decade, a PhD still represents a good investment but interestingly any postgraduate qualification has a substantial benefit - perhaps we're still in an undersupply state, but given the lack of private sector research expenditure I would not be surprised if these numbers are a more positive statement of the situation than supported by reality. I'm also somewhat suspicious that the type of person who completes a PhD would not also tend to succeed in life anyway - the process filters for a useful combination of tenacity, organisation and intelligence.