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Towards a Civic University: Unpacking the role of PhD study in personal development, professional practice, and the world we live in

  • 26 June 2024
  • By Stuart Mitchell and Hannes Read
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Stuart Mitchell, Centre Manager, and Hannes Read, Policy and Data Analyst, both at the City-Region Economic Development Institute at the University of Birmingham.

This blog draws on the evidence review from the Review of the Economic and Social Value Produced through Funding PhD Students report as part of the National Civic Impact Accelerator.

The four main audiences for this blog are: directors of research institutes or funding bodies leading or developing PhD programmes; business leaders looking to link with universities; current or prospective PhD students looking towards their future career; and senior leaders at universities looking to demonstrate their civic impact. A summary table of indicators relating to the impacts of PhDs can be found on pages 4-6 of the report.

What is in it for me?

At an individual level, earnings increase with qualifications. The graduate premium, going from a taught Master’s degree to a PhD, increases earnings by £5,500 per year, bringing average earnings to £39,200 five years after graduation. The graduate premium is especially strong for women, as there is evidence that PhDs have greater returns on earnings for women than for men, after controlling for background characteristics.

However, whilst holding a PhD increases the chances of earning a good wage, having a PhD alone is not as impactful in increasing the chances of very high earnings. Gaining a PhD increases the probability of earning over £30,000 by 9% for women and 5% for men. However, holding a PhD reduces the probability of earning over £50,000 by 7% for women and 14% for men, after controlling for background characteristics. This could be in part due to PhDs focusing on specialist research skills but not on broader leadership and management skills to support progression into senior leadership. Therefore, funders of PhD studies should also consider incorporating training in a broad range of skills to support students working towards managerial roles.

Self-confidence, professionalism, and problem-solving are all important soft skills gained from  PhD study. These soft skills help increase the chances of working in high-skilled employment, as 78% of postgraduates find work in high-skill jobs, compared to 66% of graduates and 24% of non-graduates. However, there are still barriers facing PhD students from ethnic minorities as just 1% of black people go on to study for a PhD, compared to 2.7% of white people.

A life outside of academia

PhDs are for life, not just for academia. Around 30% of PhD students go on to become early career researchers, meaning 70% of PhD holders go on to leave academia. This is not necessarily bad news, as around two-thirds of leavers utilise their skills in R&D-intensive roles. As only 15% of PhD graduates go to hold tenured positions at universities, there is a need to purposefully embed PhD training, not just towards skills as a university lecturer, but with the needs of industry and the “real world”.

There is a divide between physical and social sciences where PhD holders work after graduation. Around two-thirds of PhD holders go into work in the life sciences, whereas around 30% of social science PhD holders go into research roles outside of academia. Of these, 46% go into a non-research role. This divide adds fuel to the fire around the value of degrees in social sciences compared to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. However, this debate misses an important point. That potentially STEM PhDs are more closely aligned to the technical needs of the industry than social sciences. For all businesses, and particularly small businesses, hiring PhD holders leads to statistically significant improvements in knowledge sharing, innovation, and productivity and profitability.

Evidence from Canada shows that further research opportunities for PhD students in their second year further increase the quality of research and skill development and help support impactful work. Embedding a research culture of integrating placements and work experience can help integrate social sciences PhDs with businesses and make the most of the research skills. Integrating PhDs has significant potential for business development and professional development for both social and natural sciences.

Public good and a civic university

Education and teaching are seen as social multipliers, and PhD holders help share knowledge and research that is created. The next step is how to harness these spillovers of PhD study to help work towards a university’s civic mission. Each research project has an impact for a sector, for a place, and for a person. Directing these impacts to address the important challenges facing a locality, community, business, sector and/or group of people demonstrates how universities, through PhD funding, can make a difference in their place.

Funders and providers should develop more explicit links outside of academia, particularly with industry outside of STEM; support greater opportunities for student career development; and to improve the work-life balance of students in order to maximise the economic, social and civic impacts of PhDs.

University leaders and directors of research institutes should work strategically to ensure the research addresses challenges or supports specific sectors important to their local area, enabling students to gain a broader experience and access to potential employer networks. Embedding doctoral training to support the needs of the local area is an important part of a civic university.

Universities are one part of the wider business and innovation environment and play an important part in wider society. Linking the PhD programmes with the needs of businesses, particularly businesses in important sectors to a local/regional economy and exploring the role of social sciences PhDs in supporting businesses, can also help maximise the impacts of PhD study.

And finally, students, who are the future of our research work, can also make an impact. On an individual level, PhD study can be transformational for improving incomes, employment opportunities and choice to pursue a career of interest. More broadly, even though PhD study does not have to be for everyone, the societal benefits of spillovers of PhD study can manifest in the broader economy and society. Harnessing these economic and social impacts to make a difference for people, place and society is what a civic university is all about.

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