Doctors being pushed outside academia

Too few doctors are ending up in the private sector, states a recent Ministry of Education and Culture working group report. According to a survey conducted by FUURT, the reason is unlikely to be related to young doctors themselves.

More and more doctors should find a career outside the academic world.

Such is the rough gist of the Ministry of Education and Culture’s final report, PhDs reforming society – diversifying research careers.

This report is a continuation of those written by the Ministry’s previous research career working groups. The latest report is based around the stated goal of Sanna Marin’s government programme and the national RDI roadmap to increase research and development costs to four percent of Finland’s GNP. The working group comprised representatives from the Ministry, universities, universities of applied sciences, personnel organisations, business organisations, and research sponsors alike. The clear consensus within the group was that PhD expertise should be utilised in society to a significantly wider extent than now.

“Finland’s recovery from the COVID pandemic and sustainable financial, social, and economic growth will be realised through hard work, and more and more often that work must be done by a highly educated individual. The opportunity for people with PhDs to influence, specifically, the creation of new jobs requiring higher education, should be recognised and acknowledged”, writes Erja Heikkinen, Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Education and Culture’s Department for Higher Education and Science Policy, in the preface of the report.

Plenty of PhD work available

Statistically, employment of people with doctoral education is not an issue. Higher education still appears to guarantee jobs for most. Out of all PHD graduates of the previous year, 86 percent had found employment and 4 percent were unemployed at the end of 2018. However, recent PhD graduates with foreign backgrounds still have a harder time finding employment than their Finnish colleagues.

Despite these statistics, it is clear doctors are not finding employment where the report states they are most in demand. According to the report, the major Finnish export businesses employ significantly fewer people with PhDs than equivalent businesses in the other Nordic countries.

This is especially evident from the research and development work conducted by businesses. Even though the majority of annual RDI work units, 58 percent is generated in the private sector, only 7 percent of annual RDI work units by people with PhDs is generated in that sector.

This is a problem, because according to the Statistics Finland investigation referenced in the report, Finland could become more competitive, and the export base of small and medium businesses could be expanded by increasing the level of expertise of company personnel. It should, however, be noted the number of doctors and licentiates has grown in recent years — in 2019, the number of doctors and licentiates in business RDI positions was 11 percent higher than in 2016. Despite this, doctors and licentiates still only comprised less than 8 percent of all business RDI positions.

The majority of annual work units by people with PhDs, 36 percent, still takes place in higher education institutions.

University is the favourite, other sectors also attractive

Reading the report gives one the impression of a certain mismatch. Highly talented people with PhDs are constantly being trained in Finland, but that talent is not adequately utilised outside research organisations. The mismatch is chalked up to attitude problems, both at businesses and amongst young researchers. “The relatively small number of people with PhDs can be explained by practices and perceptions, not only at businesses but also amongst people with PhDs”, the report states.

As such, the report suggests developing researcher training in such a way that a new PhD graduate would see working life beyond the academic environment.

THowever, FUURT’s survey for younger researchers which was conducted last winter does not support the idea of doctoral students or recent graduates being uninterested in work outside the university. A university career was definitely the most widely preferred career option amongst young researchers, with 86 percent of respondents expressing interest. 68 percent were interested in a private sector job, 49 percent in a career in the third sector, and 35 percent in a career at a university of applied sciences. The least attractive career option in the survey was entrepreneurship, which interested 26 percent of young researchers. A report about this survey will be published in early September.

Developing career guidance

The FUURT survey indicates that university PhD programs have recently developed their career guidance options. In comparison to FUURT’s previous survey from 2017, doctoral students are offered more diverse career guidance, as stated by FUURT Senior Adviser Miia Ijäs-Idrobo.

“The most common form of career guidance is still a discussion about career plans with your doctoral supervisor. Right now, the more diverse forms of career planning still reach a fairly small number of younger researchers. With that in mind, the next objective must be to expand the availability of career guidance and workplace learning to more and more young researchers regardless of field.”

Business learning for doctors?

How about the employer side? Why are companies not recruiting more people with PhDs into RDI positions?

The Ministry working group reckon the reason might be related to the lack of diversification in doctoral training.

Despite researcher training providing an excellent scientific and technical expertise background, businesses also require other types of expertise. Such expertise would include, to name a few examples, understanding customer needs, business competences, and the practical application of knowledge. “In one’s studies, it might be useful to more frequently encounter tasks involving not only the scientific framework conditions but also limitations typical to business”, the report suggests. The content of one’s dissertation may also be considered a factor in employment.

Marketing one’s expertise could possibly use development as well.

“People with researcher training should be able to better highlight their versatile expertise, application skills, and solution-oriented approach for both themselves and potential employers”, the report states.

Text: Juha Merimaa
Translation: Marko Saajanaho