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Posted on 25 Jan '17

The 'Value' of a PhD - Doctoral Study and Employment

For many students the 'value' of a PhD seems self-evident. Viewed as the gateway to an academic career, a doctorate can start to seem less like a traditional qualification and more like a rite of passage.

After all, if you already know what you plan to do with your PhD, does it really matter what else it qualifies you for?

You can probably guess where this thread is leading. Exact statistics vary, but the reality is that most PhD graduates don't end up in academic jobs.

Is that bad news? Not necessarily.

For one thing, there's nothing to say you won't be one of the students who does go on to a rich and rewarding academic career. Plenty do - just look at the staff at your current university. And the other universities nearby. And the other universities that aren't nearby.

For another, those PhD students who don't work in higher education aren't all unemployed. The majority are earning decent salaries in jobs that use their research skills and subject knowledge in different ways.

This post is an attempt to find out exactly what some of those graduates do - and how rewarding it is for them.

A word on our methodology...

We can view this post as a bit of a research exercise. We have our data and we're going to use it to try and answer some questions.

But, as any good PhD student (or prospective PhD student) knows, it's important to use this data properly. And to be honest about its limitations.

You can view what follows as our 'methodology' section. I'm sure I don't have to tell you not to skip it before looking at our 'results'.

Understanding our data

The good news is that we've got good data. We're using the 2010/11 'Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Longitudinal survey' (DLHE-L), published by the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency.

These are officially recognised statistics, and they're based on the experiences of real students. But they do come with some caveats:

  • This survey takes place four years after graduation. That means we can assume salary data in particular is more representative.
  • These statistics weren't just cooked up for this blog. They're used by the UK government and other organisations.

  • Our sample size is quite small (it's hard to reconnect with students after four years). This data is also historical.
  • These statistics only reflect outcomes for students who earned a degree in the UK.

We need to bear this information in mind as we interpret our results.

PhD employability - the value of a PhD in the job market

First things first: how employable are PhD holders, overall? Will the skills and experiences you gain during three (or more) years of academic research actually help you find a job?

Based on the DLHE-L, the answer is 'yes':

PhD Employment
Full-time paid work 77.5%
Part-time paid work 8.2%
Further study 3.4%
Work and further study 3.0%
Data is based on the percentage of graduates from postgraduate research qualifications with different employment circumstances, as recorded by the 2010/11 DLHE-Longitudinal survey.

According to this information, nearly 80% of graduates with a postgraduate research qualification are in full-time paid work, four years after graduating. Some of those graduates may have completed a research Masters, but the majority will hold PhDs (as we can see, very few go on to further study).

This is encouraging. It doesn't necessarily mean that your PhD will guarantee you a specific job (such as that dream lectureship in your chosen specialism). But it does suggest that your skills will be useful in the wider job market.

Post-doctoral employment - what do PhD graduates do?

We now know that PhD students are employable, but we also know that many don't end up becoming university lecturers and researchers. So what do they actually do?

This next table gives some indication:

PhD Careers
Education 50.4%
Health & Social Work 14.9%
Professional, Scientific & Technical Roles 3.4%
Manufacturing 4.7%
Information & Communication 3.9%
Data is based on the percentage of doctoral graduates working in different roles as defined according to the Standard Industrial Classification of their employer and recorded by they 2010/11 DLHE-Longitudinal survey.

These are the top occupations for PhD holders, as identified by the 2010/11 DLHE-L, based on the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) of their employer.

As you can tell, the SIC doesn't offer a particularly specific description of a graduate's job. Thankfully, we can 'unpack' these categories a little and say what they might include.

  • Education is the simplest classification. This includes all those PhD students who do go on to academic jobs at universities. However, it also represents others who work in education at other levels as well as related fields such as educational administration and management (including at universities).
  • Health & Social Work seems fairly self-explanatory and this category does include the kinds of jobs you might expect: doctors, dentists, nurses, etc. It also covers other specialist roles associated with residential care, social work and specialist medical practice.
  • Professional, Scientific & Technical Roles is something of a catch-all for a range of occupations. These include law, accounting, architectural surveying, town-planning, engineering and veterinary practice (amongst others!). Essentially, these are professional careers that require, or benefit from, advanced technical training and expertise.
  • Manufacturing doesn't mean a lifetime spent using your doctorate to decipher flat-pack instructions. Instead this classification covers roles associated with the production of a wide range of products, from textiles and materials to food products and computer equipment - all fields that can benefit from the research skills and innovative thinking developed during a PhD.
  • Information & Communication covers everything from publishing and motion picture production to roles in IT, data processing and telecommunications. Again, it's not surprising that these are popular careers for highly qualified PhD graduates.

With these explanations in mind, the data seems fairly plausible.

Careers in Education are the most popular outcome for PhD graduates by some margin. But these will include technical, administrative and management roles as well as conventional university lectureships.

Other popular fields either draw on the advanced training and technical knowledge you'll gain from a PhD, the skills in research and innovation you'll gain during it. . . or both.

PhD salaries - what's a doctorate really worth?

So, we know that PhD graduates are highly employable and we have a general sense of the kind of work they're likely to do. How much do they earn?

If we use the DLHE-L to measure this too, we end up with a table like the following:

PhD Salaries
£15,000 - £19,999 2.6%
£20,000 - £24,999 2.9%
£25,000 - £29,999 5.2%
£30,000 - £34,999 16.0%
£35,000 - £39,999 13.1%
£40,000 - £44,999 9.4%
£45,000 - £49,999 5.7%
£50,000+ 11.3%
Data is based on the percentage of doctoral graduates earning within specific salary bands after four years, as recorded by the 2010/11 DLHE-Longitudinal survey.

Of all the tables in this post, this one should probably be taken with the biggest pinch of salt. The total sample size of PhD graduates measured in the 2010/11 DLHE-L was only 2,087. Of those, only around two thirds provided salary data that could be measured using the bands above.

This means that the information here might not be particularly representative of PhD holders as a whole. And, in any case, there's no reason to assume it will reflect the outcome for any specific student choosing to study a doctorate now.

With all that said, the results we do have continue to be encouraging. Of the relatively small number surveyed, over half of PhD graduates are earning over £30,000 a year and 10% earn £50,000 or more.


Should the information in a blog post like this be instrumental in your decision to study a PhD? Absolutely not.

But it can provide some general reassurance if you are worried about your job prospects with a doctorate.

Ultimately, much of the value of a PhD to you will depend on what you want to get out of a doctorate and, of course, what you put in. In the meantime, a range of other resources can help you make an informed choice: from individual project descriptions to research scores and university rankings.

Looking for more information on the value of a doctorate? Our advice articles can help you decide if a PhD is worth it for you and explain non-academic careers for PhD holders. You can also take a look at more posts covering post-doctoral careers, here on the blog.