A letter to honours students in Australia considering a PhD

Congrats on finishing your undergrad.  Getting a university degree isn’t easy and is probably harder now than before with the pressures of part-time work, tenuous housing and future massive HELP debts.

Being smart – you’re likely aware of the option to study for a PhD. Maybe your honours supervisor has approached you about doing one, or you’ve chatted with tutors, demonstrators and academics in your department. If you graduate with first class honours, many universities around Australia will guarantee you a scholarship. A PhD is worth considering – pushing the boundaries of human knowledge is fun. You’d develop serious skills in problem solving and you’d get to call yourself ‘Dr’.

But! you should go forward with eyes open and with full awareness of options ahead.

I’m writing this letter to you as a young(ish) academic  beginning to supervise PhD students for the first time.  It’s ace – PhD students for academics are like free worker bees; it’s always in our interest to have more. Academics want to dish out scholarships like banks do credit cards.  But I’m not sure that potential PhD students in Australia are fully informed of the prospects ahead of them.

This letter aims to address this imbalance.Aust_phds

In 1948 there were no PhDs awarded in Australia. In 1949 there were three. Now there are 7000 each year. And that’s only Australia! The USA is graduating 49,000 per year, China more than 50,000, and India aims for 20,000 by 2020.


Little_houseA PhD degree isn’t as exceptional a qualification it once was, and I choose the word ‘exceptional’ carefully.  I grew up reading the childhood classic “Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In it, Laura grows up to complete Year 7 and become a school teacher herself, something celebrated by the Ingalls family – teaching was a guarantee of secure, meaningful, well paid employment. That was in 1800: today around 7% of the world has an undergraduate university degree! Which is great!  But it means that higher levels of education aren’t an exception (which is a fantastic thing for the world).

A consequence is that university qualifications are now often a pre-requisite for jobs across many sectors.  Perhaps one day post-graduate qualifications will be a pre-requisite for a job across many sectors.

Or will they?

A PhD (usually) takes between 3-4 years, often during some of the most energetic years of life and often on a lowish wage.  There will always be a pressure for higher qualification, but at some point the marketplace will start selecting for 4 years of working experience instead of a highly-specialised higher degree by research (if it isn’t already doing so).

To an honours student considering a PhD, one potential career path is academia.   It’s worth having a look at the history of academic employment in Australia.


Figure 2. Comparison of university student and staff numbers over time. Source: ACER

Undergrad student numbers have doubled since 1989, PhD graduations are growing exponentially (quadrupled since 1989), but the number of full-time academic staff employed in Australia has increased by only 20%. A study of higher education outcomes in the UK found that 0.45% (that is, less than one in 200) of PhD graduates become a full-time professor in a university.

If you’re doing a PhD for the money then that doesn’t always add up either.  The USA Bureau of Labor Statistics found those with a PhD earn on average slightly less than those with a Professional Degree. It’s still on average more than a Bachelor, Mastes, or no degree, but the cashola isn’t massive.  And if you follow the academic route, you’re likelygoing to be on short term contracts until you’re in your mid-30s (if you’re lucky).


There are other avenues of employment with a PhD – there are great initiatives like Teach for Australia, and rewarding opportunities in government and communications and consulting and industry, and of course plenty of opportunities in other countries.

You’ve got to follow your passions. There’s no joy in life being a difference-engine living according to probabilities. And Fortune really does favour the brave. If research is what makes you tick, then there’s no other option but to follow it.  A PhD can be fun and exciting and interesting and fulfilling. But it’s worth knowing the stats and it’s worth knowing the options.



Authors note:  The impetus for this letter was me commencing supervision for the first time of a new PhD student.  Whilst the research we do during their PhD is obviously going to win us the Nobel Prize, I’m not sure how fully aware they are of the options available to the average PhD student upon graduating. And I reckon they should be.

I wanted to write it now while I’m still in academia though not yet tenured.  This letter is of course influenced by my own age/stage, but not entirely… I feel that this advice doesn’t make it out there from academia.  We’re either busy trying to recruit students, or writing grants, or perhaps feel like we’d be betraying the academic cause to highlight post-PhD issues.  There’s been fruitful discussion in the past about ‘Whether Australia is producing too many PhDs’, and ‘What PhD graduates should expect’, and the ‘The uncertainty of a career in research’, but I don’t know if anyone is out there telling honours students about it.  This letter is aimed at them.


Dr Niraj Lal
BSc (ANU), PhD (Cambridge)

OCE Science Team Leader Postdoctoral Researcher
Monash University | Faculty of Engineering | Renewable Energy Laboratory
e: niraj.lal@monash.edu

Visiting Scientist | CSIRO Nanomaterials and Devices Team | CSIRO Clayton
Visiting Fellow | Australian National University | Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems

Director, First Principles
w: nirajlal.org



Sources and Further Reading:

Group of Eight Universities Australia: https://go8.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/the-changing-phd_final.pdf

USA Bureau of Labor and Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

Barro and Lee, “A new data set of educational attainment in the world, 1950-2010”, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper Series, Cambridge MA, 2010.

Australian Council for Education Research: http://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1010&context=higher_education







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