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PhDs and value: why we need to re-think the ‘leaky pipeline’

  • 30 July 2020
  • By Bethan Cornell

This blog was written by Bethan Cornell, author of PhD Life: The UK student experience and PhD students and their careers.

I have often been asked whether or not the ‘leaky pipeline’, which describes the large numbers of PhD students and early career researchers who leave academia, is really a bad thing. We know that, while 67% of PhD students want a career in academic research, only 30% stay in academia three years on. Should this concern us?

My opinion somewhat changed while writing PhD life: the UK student experience and PhD students and their careers and in this, my final blog as a HEPI intern, I discuss why I believe that, in principle, there is not a problem with a leaky pipeline. However, in practice, the current leaking is not leading to good results for anyone.

The case for a leaky pipeline

PhDs provide students with a huge variety of transferable and valuable skills. Indeed, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the independent body who monitor the standards and quality of UK higher education, state that:

a PhD gives the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment requiring the exercise of personal responsibility and largely autonomous initiative in complex and unpredictable situations, in professional or equivalent environments.

Clearly, PhD graduates are well positioned to make a positive impact in many professional fields, so their entering the wider job market is beneficial to a multitude of industries and business.

Students themselves also benefit from the leaky pipeline. Permanent academic jobs are scarce and generally less stable and less well-paid than industrial alternatives. Succeeding often involves years on unstable contracts and frequently uprooting and moving jobs. Furthermore, once employed we know academics work long hours and are often stressed by the amount of non-research work that their job entails. Moving to a better paid, more stable industry, with a clear career path and less bureaucracy would clearly have many advantages for PhD students.

Finally, the leaky pipeline is beneficial to Government, as it provides a profitable return on the investment made in PhDs as students. Over one-quarter (27%) of UK students are funded by UK Research and Innovation and a growing number benefit from newly introduced, government-backed doctoral loans during the course of their study. Not to mention that, regardless of funding, PhD students in the UK are indeed students, so pay no National Insurance contributions or income tax during the course of their study. Therefore, having large numbers of PhD students moving into high-paid roles in business or industry, where they will not only pay their taxes, but also help their employers grow, can only be a good thing for the economy.

What has gone wrong?

So, in principle, we can agree that the leaky pipeline is no bad thing. However, in current practice there are some flaws in the system.

First, the leak is an inequitable one. Far more women and Black and minority ethnic researchers leak from the pipeline than white men. HESA data tells shows that, while 49% of PhD students are female and 4% are black, 46% of academic staff are female and 2% are black. This is bad for everyone. It means that:

  • senior researchers do not represent the society they work for;
  • academia is losing talented people who may well be the best suited for the job; and
  • inevitably, some people are staying in academic research who would be better suited to business or industrial roles.

Secondly, many PhD students leave academia reluctantly and are not fully aware of the transferable skills they take with them. This means that, when they enter the job market, they are not able to properly articulate their abilities and hence gain the positions in which they could best thrive. Furthermore, they may lack the motivation or knowledge to hit the ground running in their new roles if they are mainly taking them as a disappointing alternative to the career which they had prepared for in academia.

Finally, government does not adequately promote the benefits of the leaky pipeline. The current Government has been clear in its preference for ‘high-value’ degrees but has not included PhDs in this debate, instead focussing generally on undergraduate qualifications. This is strange, given PhD graduates significantly out-earn other graduates – 31% of PhD graduates earn over £39,000, compared to only 6% of undergraduates. Furthermore, it is detrimental to business. Without a strong positive message about the skills of PhD graduates, businesses may not be fully aware of the benefits of employing these students. Couple this to the students themselves not currently being positioned to promote their own advantages and it is easy to see how many businesses may miss out recruiting the PhD graduates who are actually best placed to make a positive impact.

Plugging the leak and fitting a pipe splitter

How do we make the practical as good as the principle? Personally, I think we need to stop thinking about the ‘leaky’ pipeline and start thinking about ‘two strong pipelines’: one into academic research and one into other sectors of the economy.

Government should be more vocal about the positive benefits that PhD students bring to business and industry. This will encourage more firms to recruit PhD students actively and ensure that PhD talent reaches the sectors it is best suited to.

Institutions should do more to ensure that PhD students are both aware of the transferable skills they are learning and are actively exploring a wide range of career pathways these skills could be used in. The most effective way to ensure this happens could be through pre-existing degree checkpoints and progress assessments.

Last, but by no means least, institutions and research funders should continue to work hard to improve the academic working culture, which will level up the demographics of those staying in and leaving research. Increasing the opportunities for stable contracts and reducing the use of performance metrics, such as h-indices and journal impact factors, are just two examples of initiatives to promote diversity in research. The Wellcome Trust is currently leading the way in this area and other funders and institutions should learn from its example.

1 comment

  1. Rits says:

    This is quite a brilliant analysis on this topic

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