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Professional integration of PhDs: A Center for Strategic Studies analysis

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It has been said time and again: university degrees shield you from unemployment. What’s more, the higher your degree, the less chance you have of experiencing unemployment on graduation. However, for the past ten years, the PhD seems to be an exception, with an unemployment rate of 10%, compared to 7% for those who hold a Master’s level degree. Mohamed Harfi and Laudeline Auriol at the Center for Strategic Analysis (CAS) have looked into what indeed appears to be a French exception.

Don’t let this rather discouraging introduction stop you from reading on: this newswatch remains an opportunity to take stock of some interesting observations that are more subtle than it first appears:
  • On the whole, there is not an overproduction of PhDs in France. International comparisons show that other countries with strong research potential train more PhDs (proportionately by age group) without generating as much unemployment as in France.
  • There are more and more jobs for researchers in the corporate world. Despite the chronic underfunding of private sector R&D in our country, the number of positions for researchers increased by 30% between 1999 and 2005 in companies and the private sector employs over half the researchers in France.
  • In the private sector, not all researchers are PhDs. Far from it, because only 13.6% of the researchers are PhDs and over 50% are engineers. As employers continue to prefer engineer profiles, the rise in the number of jobs has not been particularly beneficial to PhDs. Note that it is in disciplines that are most exposed to competition from engineers (mechanics, electronics, IT, engineering sciences) that PhDs have both a lower rate of unemployment and are more likely to hold a research position (70%) or work in the private sector (58%).
  • The horizon for PhDs is not limited to research: "in 2007, 38% of PhDs who graduated in 2004 in France held a non-research position.” And this proportion even exceeds 50% in the private sector. The authors view this as a strong point, concluding that "PhDs acquire transferable skills that enable them to go into other fields” and that “the spread of the doctoral degree to the corporate world helps to allay the difficulties PhDs have in finding jobs in non-research positions (...)"
  • Not all disciplines know the same fate. Chemistry, Literature and the Humanities and Biology and Earth Sciences are where the greatest difficulties occur. Unemployment rates are above average (16% for chemistry) and opportunities are characterized by an overrepresentation of the public sector and non-research jobs.
  • PhDs whose doctoral studies benefited from funding (CIFRE agreement or research grant) are much less unemployed three years after defending their thesis (6%).
Reiterating the importance of the stakes – the image of science among young people and the quality of future hires, the international image of French science, our country’s capacity for innovation and its competitiveness in the knowledge economy, just to give you an idea - Mohammed Harfi and Laudeline Auriol formulate 5 recommendations:
  1. Improve information to institutions and students, particularly by associating private actors more in the regular production of data by discipline regarding recruitment needs and the professional integration of PhDs.
  2. Reaffirm the central role of Higher Education and Research Clusters in coordinating and regulating the doctoral training on offer, particularly by fostering transfer of the ability to deliver degrees and the means to finance doctoral contracts over to these clusters.
  3. Associate the major engineering schools with doctoral training programs to enable more engineers to do a PhD.
  4. Increase the proportion of funded PhDs, particularly by companies: first by setting goals for universities in the framework of their contract with the state; and second, by devising a scheme that would enable a company to fund a PhD in return for the doctoral student’s commitment to remain with the company for a few years after being hired.
  5. Recognize the PhD in collective bargaining agreements, particularly in pay scales.

What about you? What do you think about these suggestions? Don’t hesitate to give us your comments below.

Source: Obstacles to the Professional Integration of PhDs: Reasons for a French Exception,” Mohammed Harfi and Laudeline Auriol, Newswatch n°189, July 2010, Center for Strategic Analysis.

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