The other doctors

A recent report indicates an alarmingly high number of jobless PhDs

Muhammad Zaheer April 04, 2021
The writer is an assistant professor of Chemistry at LUMS


My first PhD student will soon graduate, and it worries me a great deal — am I going to add another PhD to a generation of jobless PhDs? I hope not, but a recent report indicates an alarmingly high number of jobless PhDs — scholars with the highest academic qualification struggling to get permanent academic jobs. Reportedly political hiring at the universities and the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) shortsighted policies like prioritising numbers over quality, are the primary culprits.

Since its inception in 2002, HEC strived to increase the number of PhD faculty in universities greatly. As per HEC’s vision 2025, a substantial faculty increase is needed due to projected growth in university enrolment. So availability of faculty positions at universities doesn’t seem like an issue. Recently sacked HEC chairman had also denied job saturation in specific subject areas. However, due to a massive cut in HEC’s funds, universities might be facing financial challenges in hiring new faculty.

Faculty positions internationally are declining, and Asia isn’t different. It is almost impossible for a fresh PhD graduate in India to grab a faculty position without several years of post-doctoral experience. Soon, that will be the situation in Pakistan due to the increasing number of scholars graduating from local and foreign universities. In this scenario, what can scholars, HEC, and universities do to alleviate the problem?

The HEC should support a national post-doctoral programme offering equivalent salaries to a university assistant professor. National research universities need trained human resources, and currently, no ongoing research grant supports a post-doctoral research associate. A post-doctoral programme will enable PhDs to get more skills, experience and a mentor who is crucial for the academic grooming of young faculty and researchers in academia. PhD scholars can also pursue post-doctoral fellowships abroad for the same purpose, and HEC must release such scholars from legal agreements of staying in Pakistan for a certain number of years.

The quality of graduate PhD programmes is another serious issue. HEC needs to be stricter in allowing national universities to offer PhD programmes. Those that already offer must be strictly scrutinised in their admission and degree awarding process. Without enough resources and infrastructure, a generation of ill-trained PhDs will be out with even more employment issues.

Research advisers can focus on their PhD students’ creative thinking, problem-solving, effective writing, and presentation skills to enable students for the job market. Every PhD is trained to collect information or data and evaluate it for credibility. These are some of the highly demanded skills for online jobs, such as creative writing and fact-checking.

PhD students, especially those in sciences and engineering, should take interdisciplinary courses to enhance their interpersonal and communication skills. The idea of expanding skills is always good even if you already have a job. I took several courses online, including one in graphic designing that helps me make illustrations and artwork for my research paper figures or covers.

Certain areas are greatly ignored. For instance, creative thinking and problem-solving skills that one gets during a rigorous PhD training can potentially be utilised for science and research-based entrepreneurship. In this way, one could even create jobs for others.

Internationally, PhD graduates take career paths that might be unusual and surprising in the Pakistani context. For instance, a German colleague joined a school as a teacher. A PhD would be least interested in a public school’s permanent position in Pakistan because of a low salary package. The government can revise the pay scales or offer special allowances to attract PhDs to school and college-level jobs.

Unemployment of PhDs is a significant waste of highly educated and trained human resources and, if not solved soon, will discourage higher education acquisition. HEC has to take a leading role in solving this massive national problem and universities need to revise their courses and focus on the skills of the students.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2021.

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