What value a doctorate?

Richard Freeman

As Programme Leader for Researcher Development here at the Institute of Education, I focus on developing researchers themselves rather than their research. So, I was very interested to see earlier last month a report published by Vitae: What do researchers do? Early career progression of doctoral graduates. In the ‘Age of Austerity’ it was understandable that coverage of this report in the media (e.g. Times Higher Education) focused on the financial benefits of gaining a PhD. Doctoral graduates were seen as more ‘recession proof’. Indeed, the Foreword referred to how the report “provides evidence of the employability and value of doctoral graduates compared with masters and good first degrees. It shows that doctoral graduates continue to enjoy a salary premium relative to those with Masters and good first degrees. Furthermore, the incomes of doctoral graduates’ have broadly kept pace with overall UK growth in earnings, whereas those of holders of Masters and first degree have fallen back.”

The Doctoral School here at the Institute of Education is responsible for over 900 research students, putting it in the top ten in terms of size of the 59 institutions reviewed in the recent Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) Outcomes from Institutional Audit: 2009-11: Postgraduate research students. For us the support we provide for research students is an essential part of making the PhD worthwhile, not just financially, but in helping the doctoral graduate to become who they want to be throughout their life.

So for me, the most striking results in the report are those when respondents were asked about their career satisfaction and the value (non-financial) of the doctorate. In the report 92% reported high levels of career satisfaction and 86% felt that their doctoral degree experience prepared them well for or helped them progress towards their career aspirations. More than 85% felt that their doctorate had enhanced the quality of their life generally. Less than 10% felt that their doctorate did not enhance their social and intellectual capabilities beyond employment.

Most interesting were the results for Arts & Humanities doctoral graduates, who fared worse in employability compared to their peers in other disciplines. Despite that, fewer than 6% believed that the quality of their life generally had not been enhanced by their doctoral degree experience. This aspect of doctoral study can be easily overlooked if doing a PhD is seen only as toiling away in solitude to become, say, the world expert on an obscure Romanian painter. In fact, the experience of doing a PhD is very different now compared to fifty years ago when the student’s relationship with their supervisor was paramount – the ‘Secret Garden’ of supervision as it has been called. Now, the PhD is far more structured with support for the development of specific research skills as well as more generic skills such as developing skills in critical thinking and public engagement.

It is important that we recognise the value of education to society, but also to the individual. For the doctorate student, this is revealed by this survey, which is reassuring for all of us who work with doctoral students.

Vitae: What do researchers do? Early career progression of doctoral graduates
The report presents results from doctoral graduate respondents to the HESA ‘Longitudinal’ Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (LDLHE) survey in November 2010. This survey considered UK and EU graduates’ circumstances, employment outcomes and attitudes around three and a half years after they had graduated. These results are compared with similar respondents to an equivalent survey from 2008.

Dr Richard Freeman is Programme Leader for Researcher Development at the IOE.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education, Uncategorized

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