PhD Employability: the Essential Role of Industry

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In our blog today we are hosting Eloïse Germain-Alamartine who is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie early-stage researcher based at Linköping University. Eloïse is interested in the role of universities in innovation and regional development. More specifically, her work examines the relevance of doctoral education for the labour market, in particular, via studying collaborations between universities and science parks.

When imagining a doctoral student, what picture pops up in your mind first? Probably, a hackneyed stereotype of a face hidden behind glasses, pale and tired from long hours spent in the darkness of a library, giving endless and incomprehensible explanations about their work. “Lab rats”, as one industrial employer once told me, are no longer necessarily looked for. Master’s graduates are generally preferred by industrial employers, as they are often seen as more dynamic and flexible, partly thanks to numerous and paying off efforts made by universities to increase their employability.

This stereotype has been persisting despite doctoral studies becoming more and more digitalized and interactive in the researchers’ surrounding environment. For decades, there were scarcely few doctorate holders, often isolated in their ‘ivory tower’. The doctoral degree took much longer time to acquire and was often the reward for a long academic career, what means that PhD graduates were in general much older than today. Nowadays, on the contrary, PhD marks the start of an academic career and can be considered as a “license to do research” as once pointed out by one of my interviewees. Besides, PhD holders’ careers get increasingly varied: within academia, grant application and research valorisation are added to the traditional teaching and research missions. Outside academia, doctorate holders can find varied jobs in industry, for example, positions along a R&D line or even hybrid ones[1], for instance, dealing with university relations.

Although it can be less visible than for master’s students, numerous initiatives have been implemented in the last decades to increase employability of PhD graduates, in particular by universities. Collaboration with industry has been crucial in these efforts: the involvement of industrial employers in curriculum design through their inclusion in academic boards or by consulting them through workshops. For example, it is exactly what the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) did when building its Professional Competence Model for UAB Researchers. Industrial PhD programmes have been increasingly popular, and proved to be successful in France and Nordic countries, and now finding their way in Spain (Catalonia) and Italy. However, job mismatches[2] are still observed on the non-academic labour market for PhD holders. It only shows that these initiatives need to be continued and broadened as still too many employers do not seem to grasp the added value of doctoral education and doctoral-level skills.

The challenge in doctoral education is to find the right balance between its standardisation, customization and differentiation. On the one hand, at the European level, standardisation is necessary for easier evaluation of skills and recruitment processes – note the ECTS system applied at the doctoral level of education, for instance. On the other hand, customization is needed to improve competitiveness on the labour market. Industry can play an important role in finding a balancing act by bringing the sufficient degree of differentiation in a standardised system. When providing more or less formally inter-sectoral mobility experiences and industrial know-how to doctoral students, industrial actors take part in shaping and complementing doctoral education. They offer opportunities to apply theory into practice in industry-specific settings, adding a practical ‘stamp’ to the doctoral degree, which can increase its relevance and legitimacy in the eyes of non-academic employers.

The conclusions presented above are made within the research done in the framework of the EU-funded project RUNIN (The Role of Universities in Innovation and Regional Development). The research aims to study the relevance of mobility and collaboration initiatives in doctoral education, and to explore how the model of an entrepreneurial university can help and enhance the employability of doctoral students. To learn more about these issues, check recent publications:

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

[1] For a typology of researchers’ careers, see: Cañibano, C., Woolley, R., Iversen, E. J., Hinze, S., Hornbostel, S., & Tesch, J. (2018). A conceptual framework for studying science research careers. Journal of Technology Transfer, 1–29.

[2] To learn more about job mismatches of doctorate holders, see: Germain-Alamartine, E. (2019). Doctoral education and employment in the regions: the case of Catalonia. Regional Studies, Regional Science, 6(1), 299-318.