25 July 2023
The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, launched A National Tracer Study of Doctoral Graduates in South Africa last week. The PhD tracer study, the first such study in the country, was funded by the Department of Science and Innovation, managed by the Water Research Commission, and executed by a project team from Stellenbosch University’s DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP).
The study tracked, among other things, the demographic attributes, work experience, career paths and mobility of over 32 000 doctorate holders who graduated from South African universities between 2000 and 2018.
According to its finding, the percentages of students studying full time or part time differed depending on the scientific field, with students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields more likely to study full time than students in the social sciences and humanities.
Giving highlights from the study, Prof. Johann Mouton, the Director of SciSTIP and leader of the research team, indicated that the differences in the employment status of students was also linked to the age of the students. The youngest sub-group of doctoral students were full-time students in the STEM fields and the oldest group at graduation were part-time doctoral students in education.
Further disaggregation by main science domain revealed that, for example, in the biological and environmental sciences, 34% of PhD students worked full time while they studied, while 66% studied full time. In the physical and mathematical sciences, the percentages were 46% and 54%, respectively.
“Looking at the country of birth of respondents during their doctoral studies we find that respondents from the rest of Africa were more likely to study full time,” said Prof. Mouton.
Nearly 60% of graduates from these countries indicated that they were not employed while enrolled for a PhD. This compares to 31% of South African nationals and 45% of graduates from elsewhere in the world.
Most South Africa’s doctoral graduates over the past 20 years have remained with the same employer since obtaining their doctorates. This is not surprising given the percentage of all doctoral students who were already employed when they enrolled for doctoral studies.
A substantial number of students (20%) indicated that they accepted a postdoctoral fellowship on completion of their studies and only 2% indicated that they could not find employment in the first year after completing their doctoral degree.
The vast majority (70%) of graduates indicated that they found employment that was directly related to their fields of expertise or training. However, nearly one in five (18%) indicated that they could not find an employment position related to their PhD field.
Dr Blade Nzimande, speaking at the launch, said that the event was aimed “at the dissemination of key study findings and recommendations, as well as stimulating a discussion with key stakeholder groups, whether government, business, higher education institutions, civil society or students, on the value of PhDs in society and in the economy,” said the Minister.