28 August 2023

In September 2022, DSI-NRF Centres of Excellence Programme in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP) successfully concluded the National Tracer Study of Doctoral Graduates in South Africa. The Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, Dr. Blade Nzimande, formally launched the final report in Pretoria on July 21, 2023. This pioneering PhD tracer study, a first of its kind in South Africa, aimed to track the professional mobility and career trajectories of individuals who obtained their PhDs from South African universities between 2000 and 2018. Generously funded by the Department of Science and Innovation and managed by the Water Research Commission, this study sheds light on crucial insights into the academic landscape.

The findings and insights presented in this report stem from a comprehensive study involving a representative sample of 6,400 doctoral holders. For the first time, this report offers precise, and applicable information on a diverse array of topics regarding the careers of doctoral graduates. These include the employability of South African doctoral graduates, the financial aspects of pursuing doctoral studies, distinctions in the career paths between full-time and part-time students, obstacles encountered by postdoctoral fellows, the capacity of various employment sectors to absorb these graduates, and the geographical mobility trends among doctoral recipients. Additionally, the report provides novel perspectives on the perceived significance and practicality of embarking on a doctoral journey.

A prominent discovery from this study underscores the overall employability of doctoral recipients from South African universities: Remarkably, less than 3% of respondents expressed difficulty in securing employment within the initial year after completing their doctoral studies. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that over 60% of doctoral graduates engage in full-time employment even while pursuing their doctoral studies. Furthermore, 68% of these graduates are employed within the higher education sector during their studies and persist in this sector upon completing their doctoral journey.

The career trajectory data reveals a trend of limited intersectoral mobility. Notably, a substantial majority of South Africa’s doctoral graduates from the last two decades have maintained their affiliation with the same employer since attaining their doctorates. This trend aligns with expectations, considering the notable portion of doctoral students who were already employed before embarking on their doctoral studies.

A significant proportion (70%) of graduates affirmed securing employment that aligns closely with their areas of expertise and training. However, almost 20% of respondents conveyed difficulties in securing employment relevant to their specialized field. Those who obtained their doctoral degrees within the last five years were more prone to indicating that their present job or role deviated from the realm of their doctoral expertise, in comparison to individuals who earned their degrees over 15 years ago. When the data is examined by scientific field, graduates in Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) fields faced greater obstacles in finding suitable employment when contrasted with their counterparts in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic (STEM) fields.

Regarding the application and utilisation of various aspects of their doctoral studies, PhD graduates attribute more significance to general knowledge and research skills in their employment, as opposed to field-specific knowledge, methodological skills, or the specific research findings within their dissertations. While over two-thirds of respondents noted that holding a doctoral degree was a prerequisite for their current employment, it’s unsurprising that those employed within the higher education sector demonstrated a stronger inclination (83%) toward this sentiment compared to counterparts in the government sector (53%). In the private non-profit sector (39%) and business sector (33%), fewer respondents perceived a doctorate as an essential requirement for their present roles.

The majority of doctoral graduates, between 80% and 92%, expressed contentment with their decision to pursue a PhD, the specific field chosen for their doctorate, and the returns yielded from their investment. Furthermore, these graduates affirmed that their expectations regarding obtaining a doctorate had been fulfilled.

One out of five survey respondents indicated that they pursued a postdoctoral fellowship upon completing their doctoral degree. Notably, over the past two decades, there has been a significant growth in the number and proportion of PhD graduates engaging in postdoctoral fellowships. This period specifically saw a notable prevalence of postdoctoral positions within the biological and environmental sciences, as well as the broader STEM fields, with a notable scarcity in the SSH fields. This discrepancy was particularly pronounced in the field of education.

While the majority of the sample spent approximately three years in their postdoctoral fellowship positions, a striking finding was the presence of a subgroup – one in three respondents – who could be characterised as “serial postdocs.” These individuals pursued one or more postdoctoral positions subsequent to their initial fellowship. The study revealed that this behaviour often stems not from preference but rather from a scarcity of employment opportunities, particularly in the academic sphere, where they aspire to secure permanent roles. Importantly, these serial postdocs tend to graduate with their PhDs at an even younger age than their counterparts who undergo only a single postdoctoral fellowship.

The evidence suggests that the system’s ability to accommodate a rising influx of doctoral graduates is currently under strain. Indications suggest that while South Africa may persist in generating larger cohorts of doctoral graduates annually, the absence of substantial growth in new positions within academia and other knowledge-intensive sectors could potentially lead to reduced employability rates for these graduates nationwide. This trend becomes particularly apparent in the STEM fields, where an increasing number of graduates in the biological and environmental sciences find themselves in a cycle of consecutive postdoctoral positions.

Read more here: DSI

By Dr Milandre Van Lill

Download the policy brief here

Access the report here.

Watch the Youtube recording here