New RCUK study on the impact of doctoral training

By Dr Iain Cameron, Head of RCUK Research Careers and Diversity.

There are existing studies that look at the career pathways and impact of doctoral training – after six months from graduating and then after three years. But what difference do PhD graduates make in the longer term?

As part of a larger of programme of longitudinal tracking of doctoral graduates, RCUK has launched a new study, with the UK funding councils, to examine the economic impact of doctoral training with PhD graduates from 2004-05. We want to gain a deeper and more evidence-based understanding of their impact and how their skills contribute to innovation and the competitiveness of the UK. The study is being carried out by the research consultancy CFE in partnership with the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) and Sheffield University.

As well as examining their impact to the economy and in the workplace, we will be looking at the vibrancy of the research base and the contribution of doctoral graduates across the economy, not just in academic fields. We want to find out the range and scope of career destinations and how their careers are developing, which will help to inform guidance for researchers on the career choices available to them.

We know that, logistically, this is going to be challenging. Getting back in touch with people after a number of years is not straightforward. People move, change jobs, change emails, change phone numbers. Unusual names might pop up in searches but while we might find lots of people called Jane Smith, knowing which the right one is, is much harder.

To identify typical career pathways and routes for innovation for different subjects or groups of people, we need enough replies to be confident their paths really are representative. It’s not going to be easy and enough replies to do even broad subject groupings may be ambitious, so we may also include graduates from 2003-04 and 2005-06.

A first stage is inviting anyone who completed their doctorate between 2003 and 2006 to get in touch with CFE so we can work out whether we will be able to reach enough people for a survey to work. We need the help of supervisors, research centres, alumni offices and other networks of doctoral graduates to help us to identify and make contact with graduates. Providing we have enough contact information, the research will begin with a short online survey and, for some, more in-depth interviews.

We are confident that if we can reach doctoral graduates, they will be pretty good at responding and many will feel compelled to be involved for the ‘greater good’. By telling us about what they doing, it will provide more evidence that is vital to inform decisions on future investment in doctoral training.

The other big challenge is, of course, about what we’ll ask them. There are reasonably established methods for looking at the impact of research outcomes. When it comes to individual impacts and careers, there are quite a few career stories, case studies and in-depth work. For example, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) work on the contribution of social science to government policy is at the cutting edge of such comprehensive work. We know there is a large survey of doctoral graduates in Germany. There are also studies around salaries, but we wish to look beyond private returns to establish whether the UK economy and society benefits from investments in doctoral research. This is where we don’t yet have established methods and indicators, but if we want evidence-based decision-making, we have to continue to work on it.

We expect to publish the findings of the study by the end of 2013 and this will develop a sustainable research tool that could be used again to help fill gaps in evidence. The data will be made available to others through the UK Data Archive.

We would like to encourage graduates, and anyone who can put us in touch with the right doctoral graduates, to get in touch. Further information is available at http://www.cfe.org.uk/doctoralimpactstudy

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