It is very difficult for most people to get a job at university after obtaining their doctorate. Nevertheless, a survey carried out by the Rathenau Institute and the PhD Candidate Network of the Netherlands (PNN) shows that the majority of PhD graduates have set their hearts on an academic career.

According to this survey, entitled ‘Obtaining a doctorate in the Netherlands’, more than 50% of the PhD students would like to continue working at a Dutch university. Their expectations vary considerably: 73% of the PhD students in the language & culture sector hope for an academic career compared to 40% in the technology sector. But not many of them achieve this dream: only 33% of the PhD students move on directly to an academic post at a Dutch university. This state of affairs is nothing new, as PhD students’ career opportunities have been under discussion for many years. However, the survey is the first source that reveals how these students prepare themselves for life after obtaining their doctorate.

PhD students do not actively seek jobs

According to the survey, less than 50% of the PhD students actually give any thought to the future. This percentage does increase as the date of the ceremony draws nearer, but even then, almost 25% have not yet made any plans for their future career. The final phase of the survey shows that 60% of the PhD students are not actively seeking jobs. “I think this is because most people are concentrating on getting their research finished at that stage,”, says Rathenau researcher Rosalie Belder.

Too optimistic

“A lot of young researchers are far too optimistic about their chances at an academic career,” explains PNN president Victor de Graaff. “Universities should make this much clearer. Although it’s no big deal if the universities can’t take everyone on, PhD students should still be aware of this before starting their research.” In his foreword to the survey report, Rathenau director Jan Staman writes that PhD students need to draw up a ‘Plan B’. “They should ask themselves what they’re good at,” Rosalie Belder adds. “If you want to pursue an academic career, that’s fine, I’d say go for it. But you should also think about what else you enjoy doing. Go for a coffee and chat with your fellow students who are working somewhere else and find out what options are open to them.”

Universities should help out

Ms Belder feels that universities should help students out in this respect. The survey reveals that only 24% of the PhD students have a supervisor who actually advises them on their chances at a job after obtaining their doctorate. This is not always due to unwillingness, since 56% of the PhD students feel that their supervisor is giving them support if they decide to pursue a non-academic career. Ms Belder says that PhD students still highly depend on their supervisors for advice and assistance in career planning. “That’s logical, theoretically speaking,” she explains. “They have a great deal of contact with their supervisors and these people have the most extensive network within the university. But I do feel that the HR department should also start playing a more active role in this. They can give the students a broader outlook and tell them about the available options outside the academic world.”

Unemployment is not a foregone conclusion

According to a previous survey, this process does not automatically result in unemployment, even though only a few PhD graduates find jobs at universities. Many PhD graduates find a job elsewhere fairly quickly. However, it does take quite a while – 12 years on average – before they are at the same salary level as their contemporaries who started work immediately after obtaining their master’s degree. Ms Belder observes that PhD graduates do not give the matter much thought: “They choose a certain course for their doctorate because they’re passionate about research. It means a great deal to them.” HOP