The high cost of obtaining a PhD degree in South Africa

A study has found that PhD graduates are often excluded from the recruitment space because they are seen as overqualified by human resource personnel.

Dr. Tebogo Mashifana is a Senior Lecturer, Researcher, and Head of Department: Chemical Engineering Technology at the University of Johannesburg. She recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Independent Online: 04 April 2022.

A week after the release of the latest unemployment data by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), I came across a young woman hoisting a placard advertising her university qualification on one of Johannesburg’s busy intersections.

As it was in peak hour traffic while I was driving to work, I could not see the rest of the poster. But it read in part, “PhD in … Job hunting, please help.”

The next day, I heard her being interviewed on the radio, which led to a certain company offering her a job. This was heart-warming. However, for many other PhD graduates, the hunt for that elusive job continues. Years after graduating, they are still languishing in the streets. It is part of the quintessential story of modern South Africa.

As recently as this month, I stumbled across a LinkedIn posting by a PhD holder from a reputable institution in South Africa, saying she is looking for employment.

In November 2019, Head of Digital for Standard Bank Wealth and Director of Strategy at Starcom Media Vest Group South Africa, Dr Amaleya Goneos-Malka, presented a recent study on the labour dynamics of South Africa’s highest academic degree (PhD), permanently employed by leading companies that drive the South African economy. The study, which focused on 2014 versus 2017, showed that in 2014, in 350 companies, only 995 employees were PhD graduates out of 1.4million employees that were surveyed.

In 2017, with more than 6000 new PhD holders, only 809 of them were employed. “There is a big drop in the employability of PhDs throughout the years, and only 21 percent of PhD graduates are working in their specific discipline that they had studied their PhD in.

This is really a challenge because people spend over 10 years studying plus, starting off with their undergraduate studies and postgraduate studies,” noted Dr Geneos-Malka.

The study further found that PhD graduates are often excluded from the recruitment space because they are seen as overqualified by human resource personnel.

Now, after my brief encounter with the PhD graduate who was hosting a poster advertising her qualification, questions that have always been making noise in my head came up all over again, haunting me. “Why should people who have acquired knowledge at the highest-level struggle for jobs? Where are we failing graduates as a nation?

What is it that we are not doing right as higher education institutions? Why are we even funding postgraduate students to obtain the highest qualifications?” A whole avalanche of questions pummelled me, leaving me snowed under.

It is hard to reconcile all of this, given that there is a relatively small number of people who graduate with a PhD qualification. Attaining a PhD qualification is not by any means an easy feat. It is much harder to create information – to produce knowledge for the very first time. A PhD is one of your most valuable assets and most transferable skills. In 2021, a newspaper article indicated that “South Africa needs to scale up the production of PhD graduates”.

In fact, the need to produce PhD graduates is highlighted in the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030. It explicitly states that “Increase the participation rate in higher education to more than 30%, double the number of scientists, and increase the numbers of African and women postgraduates, especially PhD, to improve research and innovation capacity”.

One of the strategies that have been implemented to achieve this goal is the increase in funding through organisations such as the National Research Foundation. The current model seems to be close to perfect. The government provides the funding to the students through higher education institutions. However, a closer look at this system shows that it is linear approach to achieving the NDP 2030.

As Dr Goneos-Malka noted, although the PhD throughput is increasing each year, the proportion of South Africans graduating from South African institutions needs to be greater to fulfil NDP expectations, illustrating that in South Africa, only 55% of PhD graduates in 2016 were South Africans and 45% were not South African.

More disconcerting is that the successive Statistics SA reports on unemployment showed that not only is there a growing despondency among the youth as a result of the scarcity of job opportunities, but that many have given up job hunting.

If you have mentored someone, especially a black woman, and she, against all odds, manages to obtain a doctoral degree – and at the end of that milestone – she struggles to get her career started, that cuts deep. Ideally, a doctoral degree would take between 8 – 10 years to complete from undergraduate, and sometimes even longer. The question then is: at what price if the graduates struggle for opportunities in the job market?

It is important to pause, reflect, and ask ourselves why, if PhD graduates are so important to improving research and innovation capacity in our country, we have not created a closed-loop system that can absorb them in the job market once they complete their qualifications.

Could it be that all we do is to fulfil our professorial roles, from a supervisor’s perspective, instead of being a little more considerate and compassionate towards our graduates?

It is fair to ask the PhD graduates if, while busy with their studies, they present their research papers at academic conferences and publish them in journals, as well known academic Professor Jonathan Jansen once did. It is also only reasonable to ask if a graduate did some volunteer work during vacations and worked hard to prove their potential to prospective employees. Yet, there is more than just supervising that a professor and academic can do to prepare studies for future jobs. Of course, we may not have the funds to hire them as post-doctoral fellows, but how about using some of the research funds that many supervisors generate through their students’ work to hire them as research assistants?

One of the reasons for the graduates struggling to find jobs is the disconnect between what and how universities teach and the experience of actually working in the job market.

What the country really needs, therefore, is a circular or a closed-loop approach. The government cannot invest so much in funding postgraduate students if there is no return for such through the graduates contributing to economic growth through knowledge and skills.

Universities cannot continue to only celebrate and focus on postgraduate outputs. Supervisors cannot continue to only focus on supervising PhD students and celebrating the number of graduates they have produced.

Concomitant with this is where and how can the new knowledge they have generated be applied? Are we even conducting relevant research to solve challenges in modern societies? If so, are we doing enough to approach the relevant stakeholders whose companies and organisations can potentially benefit through the uptake of graduates?

For many years, young people have been taught that education is an indispensable tool to unlock many doors on the way to success. Yet, many have to convince those in their close cycle as to why they need to study all the way up to a doctoral degree level. They have to explain to their families why they cannot go to work straight after obtaining their first degree and make the family understand why they will not be able to provide for them while they are pursuing a PhD.

Now, many have to go back to the same people who were made to believe with a PhD, they stand a better chance of getting employment, and then explain why after 8-10 years of studying and with the highest qualification, they still cannot be employed. I cannot begin to imagine the trauma the PhD graduates have to go through, throughout the entire process.

Now is the time for universities and other higher education institutions to look for creative and resourceful ways to close the loop gap. And while appreciating the funders who continue to support our postgraduate students, one has to ask if there is a way that they can start thinking beyond the PhD funding? And where is the private sector when PhD holders who have the requisite knowledge and expertise can help companies’ growth strategies?

For the sustainable development of the country, we need to work together to ensure that the high unemployment statistics do not include the PhD graduates.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.


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