In recent years, PhD graduates have seen a shift in employment opportunities, with a growing number of non-traditional roles available beyond teaching and research. The specialized knowledge and expertise gained through rigorous research training make PhD professionals highly valuable to government agencies, non-profits, and private companies. In Canada, “law and social, community, and government services” ranked as the third most common career route for PhD graduates in 2016. And around 12% of University of Toronto PhD graduates between 2000 and 2015 ended up working in the public sector. In this article, we will explore some factors influencing PhD holders to choose a career path in the public sector.
A PhD’s career choice is primarily influenced by their personal preferences, including their desire for intellectual challenges, independence, and level of responsibility. Those who work in academia may have more research autonomy, but they often face greater job insecurity due to the scarcity of permanent positions. In contrast, those who choose to work in the public sector typically have less independence, but enjoy greater job security and a more stable career path. Ultimately, the choice of career path will depend on the individual’s priorities and values.
However, putting individuality aside, other external factors also shape personal choices in an impactful way. The objective supply and demand relationships between PhDs and the individual employment sector also determine the position availability, as in how many PhD holders there are vs. how many PhD holders are needed. A 2015 study revealed that due to the limited availability of academic positions, regions with a higher number of PhDs awarded tended to have a greater influx of individuals seeking employment outside academia, including the public and private sectors. Furthermore, supply and demand relationships for PhDs can vary significantly across different disciplines. A 2022 study found that PhD graduates from social sciences and humanities are more likely to be employed in the public sector compared to their peers from STEM subjects and economics.
In addition, external encouragement can also impact a PhD’s motivation and confidence in pursuing specific employment sectors. The 2022 study also found that if a PhD graduate is encouraged by their supervisor to pursue a public sector career, they are more likely to seek employment there.
The conventional perception of government jobs in North America has been that they offer more stability, better pay, and greater benefits than academia, making them an attractive option for PhD holders, particularly when tenure positions in academia are scarce. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted this view. According to a recent report, the US government currently has 1.1 million unfilled positions – almost double compared to five years ago. The study also revealed high dissatisfaction with wages in the government sector, and pandemic-related layoffs had undermined job stability in government roles.
During the pandemic, research funding was prioritized towards COVID-19-related research, with the aim of accelerating the process of understanding and producing a solution to this newly evolved disease. Many countries, including Canada, even allocated additional public funding towards such research despite economic contraction. As a result, funding for non-COVID-related research was reduced. The funding priorities undoubtedly altered the employment landscape for PhD holders significantly, albeit to varying degrees across different fields. For instance, PhD holders in infectious disease and public health may have experienced different employment prospects in the public sector than those in cancer research or geography studies. However, the exact outcomes are yet to be revealed.
When it comes to overall career choices, individuals weigh and balance different factors. In China, government jobs are typically perceived unfavorably. Yet, many PhD holders have recently opted to work in the public sector due to a mismatch in supply and demand. With many new graduates and an economic downturn caused by the pandemic, many PhD holders have chosen to pursue government positions despite the negative perception of these jobs. In one local report from authorities in Chaoyang District in Beijing, 95% of new government employees held a master’s or PhD degree, but were employed in routine government positions that did not require advanced degrees.
At the end of the day, the career decisions of PhD holders come down to their subjective assessment of career prospects. Graduates tend to choose career paths they believe offer the best opportunities, which depend on the available labour market information, job descriptions, and their own abilities. To make informed decisions, PhD holders need to objectively evaluate their skills through peer feedback, supervisor inputs or leveraging tools like the Stanford Biosciences Individual Development Plan.
It is worth noting that while European PhD career outcomes have been extensively analyzed, there is a lack of recent systematic surveys on PhD graduate employment in North America, let alone specifically in the public sector. As such, connecting with graduates already working in your desired field can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the job description and daily work responsibilities, leading to better-informed decisions.
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