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You will find here a collection of contributions of different authors sharing their ideas, views or lessons learnt during their professional development. Please feel encouraged to comment on the contributions and share your experiences on the various topics. If you would like to add your own contribution, please get in contact with us.

Employment Status of PhD Holders in Belgium, Authors: Neda Bebiroglu, Baptiste Dethier and Christel Ameryckx

The number of doctoral degrees awarded between 2000 and 2016 in the Federation Wallonia-Brussels (FWB), the French speaking part of Belgium, nearly doubled from 568 doctoral degrees in 2000 to 900 doctoral degrees in 2016. However, as observed in many parts of the world, this increase in the number of PhD holders in the FWB was not matched by an increase in the number of available permanent academic positions. Therefore, many PhD holders either found themselves in increasingly longer periods of postdoctoral training waiting mostly unsuccessfully for a tenured academic position or entered the non-academic labour market.

Comprehensive survey data for PhD holders were not systematically collected in the FWB.
To address this gap, thanks to funding from the Federation Wallonia-Brussels (FWB), the Observatory of Research and Scientific Careers-F.R.S.-FNRS was created in September 2018 to track and analyse the careers of researchers in the FWB.

We conducted a survey entitled the “Future of PhD Holders” specifically targeting the job transition of PhD holders from all six French-speaking universities of Belgium. Our goal was to capture an informative snapshot of the employment status of PhD holders early in their career. 2,065 PhD holders completed this questionnaire. We recently published our first thematic report based on our findings.  Click here to download the full report.

Here are a few interesting findings from our report:
    New job after doctoral completion. A large majority of PhD holders find a new job within four months of obtaining their doctoral degree. However, very few find their new job through career services that exist within universities or outside universities such as public employment services.
     Employment status. PhD holders have a high rate of employment: a majority (79.6%) are employed full-time, 9.1% are employed part-time, and 7.2% are self-employed. These high employment rates, however, may mask relatively precarious employment conditions since only 60.7% of those employed have permanent contracts.
     Sector of employment. The university sector remains the main employment sector for PhD holders regardless of their research field. Other important sectors of employment are industry and the government/public sector.
     Unemployment rate. The overall unemployment rate in our sample is 3.8%, which is lower than the national average in Belgium in 2018 (6.2%) and comparable to international surveys on PhD holders.
     Pursuing an academic career. The two main reasons to pursue an academic career are a “passion for research” and the “creative and innovative nature of activities”. The two main reasons not to pursue an academic career are “very few job offers or no job offers at all in the academic sector” and the “wish to do more applied work in the real world”. Interestingly, 55.8% of those who did not pursue an academic career in 2018 said they would have liked to have an academic job if they had had the opportunity. This suggests that for a large majority the choice of a non-academic career is a forced choice or a plan B.
    Type of contract. The type of contract PhD holders have depends on their sector of employment. Universities offer the highest rate of temporary contracts.
    Number of contracts. The average number of contracts PhD holders sign increases more steeply in the first three years following doctoral completion. We infer that the first three years after the doctoral degree is awarded are more unstable, with frequent job changes or multiple jobs combined simultaneously.

Our findings suggest that regardless of their research field, an important proportion of PhD holders stay in the university sector and that a non-negligible proportion work under temporary contracts. Lack of career prospects and high levels of job insecurity during postdoctoral training put PhD holders in the FWB in a vulnerable position. Although, for the most part, these highly qualified people would like to pursue an academic career, they are forced to leave the university sector. With little experience outside of academia and little career guidance, doctorate holders must promote the skills they acquired during doctoral training to prospective employers in other sectors of employment, which do not necessarily recognise the added-value of their degree.

Specialised and individualised career guidance during and after the PhD degree could provide the necessary support for them to prepare their transition. In addition to this individual guidance, global work on the promotion of the doctoral degree among potential employers, especially those beyond academia, is necessary to highlight the skills PhD holders acquire during their training and explain how these skills may be useful in a number of different sectors.

We will continue to publish similar reports on the results of the “Future of PhD Holders” survey, which you can find on the following website: http://www.observatoire.frs-fnrs.be/


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