Back in medieval times, there was no doubt about what you’d do after getting a masters or doctoral degree. Research degrees were awarded as a form of university teaching qualification. Having one meant that you were admitted to the rank of university instructor, and this rank would travel with you so that you could teach at multiple institutions. In fact, the term ‘doctor’ derives from the Latin ‘docere,’ meaning ‘to teach.’
It was only really in the 1800s that research degrees evolved beyond teacher training programmes. But even after that, research qualifications were strongly associated with university teaching paths, and graduates could reasonably expect to be employed as academics. For prior generations of masters and doctoral graduates, right up until the late 1900s, teaching was often a foregone conclusion. As recently as 1970-74, a clear majority (57%) of PhD students in the U.S. expected to spend most of their time teaching (Thurgood, Golladay, & Hill, 2006, p.59).
But times have changed. The number of people pursuing research degrees has increased, and the range of careers they choose afterwards has widened. By 1995-99, the percentage of PhD students in the U.S. who expected to spend most of their time teaching had dropped to 38% (Thurgood, Golladay, & Hill, 2006, p.59 ). By 2018, only 24% of U.S. doctorate recipients with definite post-graduation work commitments were employed in academia (National Science Foundation, 2018, Table 52).
In New Zealand too, research degrees no longer come with the assumption of a secure university teaching job when you finish. However, they have become much more recognised for their value in a variety of other careers. Right now, with a recession looming for New Zealand and the global outlook even more dire, it’s harder than ever to predict what kinds of employment might be available on the other side of a research degree.
But what we can do is look at the facts: what are the common types of careers for research degree graduates? How much do research degree-holders earn? And what does a real post-Masters or post-doctorate career path actually look like?
Common careers for research degree graduates
While academic teaching (and research) jobs are no longer a foregone conclusion for those with a research degree, they are still an option. Lectureships, postdocs, and research fellowships remain open – predominantly in STEM and business subject areas. There are also a great many research degree-holders in non-academic education careers.
A Ministry of Education analysis of doctorally-qualified people who graduated in the early 2000s showed that over 50% of 2003 graduates were employed in education & training roles (academic and non-academic) at two years post-study. That proportion dipped under 50% for the 2005 cohort. Professional, scientific, and technical careers increased over that time, employing a quarter of the 2005 graduates (2011, p.18).
But there are other options besides education and professional, scientific, and technical roles. While New Zealand statistics don’t get into the granularity of different career options, there are plenty of research degree holders working in healthcare, government, industry, the non-profit sector, and self-employment (consulting or entrepreneurship). Keep reading for a link to some cases studies.
The 2013 New Zealand census reported that the median personal income for people with a Bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) was $46,700. This rose to $58,300 for those with a Master’s degree; and $83,600 for those with a doctorate (Statistics New Zealand, 2015). However, those are just medians. Many new graduates won’t earn that much right away. Some may even earn more.
More recently, the 2018 New Zealand census data shows that high levels of personal income are strongly correlated with advanced research degrees. Only 14% of Bachelor’s degree holders earn over $100,000 per year; but 23% of Masters and 38% of doctoral degree holders earn that much.
So the potential to earn a top-tier salary increases greatly as you gain those higher research qualifications. And reassuringly, jobs seem to be more secure in a recession for those with postgraduate qualifications. The Ministry of Education reported that, while people with pre-degree and Bachelor’s level qualifications had lower than usual employment rates in their first year post-study after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, people with postgraduate qualifications were “relatively more shielded from the effects of the recession in terms of gaining employment” (Ministry of Education, 2013, p.6)
What do other graduates’ career paths look like?
Stats and facts are all very well, but sometimes it helps to read real people’s stories. I recently stumbled upon a great Tumblr blog called ‘What Are All The PhDs?‘ It collates stories about people who’ve done PhDs and what they did afterwards. Some are in research and/or teaching positions. Others have found careers in the corporate world. Some are consultants. Some are artists. Some are entrepreneurs. But most of their stories show one thing in common: the path out of a research degree is a winding one, and can’t be fully anticipated in advance.
Ministry of Education (2013). Looking at the employment outcomes of tertiary education: New data on the earnings of young graduates. (Tertiary education occasional paper 2013/02). Retrieved from educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/80898
Ministry of Education (2011). Post doc: Do people with doctoral degrees get jobs in New Zealand post study? Retrieved from educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/104275
National Science Foundation (2018). Survey of Earned Doctorates. Retrieved from ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf20301/data-tables/
Statistics New Zealand (2018). Total personal income and highest qualification by age group and sex, for the census usually resident population count aged 15 years and over, 2013 and 2018 Censuses. Retrieved from nzdotstat.stats.govt.nz/wbos
Statistics New Zealand (2015). [Education and training in New Zealand] [Infographic]. Retrieved from www.stats.govt.nz/infographics/education-and-training-in-new-zealand
Thurgood, L., Golladay, M. J., & Hill, S. T. (2006). U.S. doctorates in the 20th Century. (NSF special report 06-319). U.S. National Science Foundation. https://dpcpsi-nih-gov/sites/default/files/opep/document/Final_Report_(03-517-OD-OER)%202006.pdf