Knowledge or science-based economy? The employment of UK PhD graduates in research roles beyond academia

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In recent decades, governments have sought to increase the number of PhD graduates and support their transition into non-academic employment. The UK is no exception to this trend: investing significantly in doctoral funding, skills training and programme reform to facilitate progression into the non-academic labour market. To an extent, these aspirations have been fulfilled, with a growing proportion of PhD graduates forging non-academic careers. However, it is less clear if the types of roles that PhD graduates occupy fulfil the promise of a high-skilled, knowledge-based economy. This article focuses on the absorption of UK PhD graduates into research employment outside of academia and considers how entry into research roles varies by academic and demographic characteristics. To explore this question, data from two cohorts of UK domiciled PhD-holders in the ‘Destination of Leavers of Higher Education Longitudinal Survey’ are analysed (n = 4,731). Over two-thirds of PhD graduates enter non-academic employment. However, a significantly higher proportion of science graduates from the prestigious Russell Group of universities secure research employment and report greater career satisfaction. The analysis signals the existence of a science-based knowledge economy into which certain PhD holders fit, but research employment opportunities for humanities and social science PhD graduates are less evident. The implications of these differentiated trajectories for continued doctoral expansion are discussed. While the dataset is a valuable resource, its limitations illustrate the need to advance empirical and conceptual understanding of PhD employment beyond academia.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in Higher Education
Early online date28 Aug 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Aug 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 The Author(s).


  • Doctoral education
  • knowledge economy
  • doctoral employment
  • labour market outcomes
  • research careers

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