July 2014


The transition into work of doctoral degree holders

Sandra Nieto Viramontes - Technician of AQU Catalunya's Quality Assessment Department

The survey on the transition into work (also referred to as destinations or labour market outcomes) of holders of doctoral degrees, which is carried out by AQU Catalunya once every three years, provides information on the situation in the labour market of doctoral degree holders three years after being awarded a doctoral degree from one of the different universities in Catalonia. A large number of studies analysing the employment situation of graduates have been carried out although very few have dealt with doctoral degree holders, which is probably due to the lack of available databases that are sufficiently representative of the population of doctoral degree holders. Corresponding data are now available however for 2008, 2011 and 2014, which can be used to identify trends in the main indicators for the labour market as regards doctoral degree holders and other characteristics connected with doctoral degrees.

The economic crisis that began in 2007 and persists until the present day has led to widespread job losses and the rate of unemployment has consequently increased to record levels. At this point in time, education has a key role to play in preventing, to a large extent, the negative effects of the economic crisis. People with a higher level of education are also more likely to be employed and less likely to be unemployed than those with a lower level of education. Given that doctoral degrees are the highest level that can be achieved of formal education, doctoral degree holders have a comparative advantage over individuals with lower levels of education. According to data from the Labour Force Survey (EPA), the rate of unemployment for the population of doctoral degree holders aged between 25 and 44 is 7%, compared to 36% for the same age group with just a primary education. The employment figures for 2014 according to AQU Catalunya support this finding in that the rate of unemployment for doctoral degree holders three years after being awarded their degree is 4.9% whereas for the graduate population in general it is 11%.

Figure 1. Trends in the rate of unemployment. Population aged 25-44 (Labour Force Survey)


Job situation

Universities and research institutes employ 60% of the doctoral degree holders who obtained their award in 2009 and 2010, while 40% work in industry and private enterprise. There are notable differences in these percentages among the different disciplines. Those with doctoral degrees in Engineering and Architecture, Social Sciences and Humanities predominate in the universities while those in Experimental Sciences are distributed evenly between the universities, research institutes and industry and private enterprise. On the other hand, doctoral degree holders in the Health Sciences predominate in industry and private enterprise (69%), which here mainly corresponds to hospitals.

As far as the type of contract is concerned, 46% of doctoral degree holders have a permanent contract and 88% of these work full-time. Of those who work full-time, 78% receive a salary of more than 24,000 euros three years after obtaining their doctoral degree. These indicators have shown a decline compared to 2008. In particular, the relative importance of both permanent and full-time contracts has decreased by 15 and 4 percentage points respectively. On the other hand, temporary contracts and internships have increased significantly.

One of the most important characteristics is probably the match between the training of doctoral degree holders and the needs of the labour market. More specifically, 59% of those interviewed have job duties and responsibilities of a doctoral degree level three years after having obtained their doctoral degree. This percentage varies according to discipline, with 68% in Experimental Sciences followed by 64% in Engineering and Architecture and 43% in Health Sciences. The match in more established areas of doctoral training (universities and research institutes) is higher than in industry and private enterprise. 85% of those working at a university and 73% at a research institute carry out job duties and responsibilities that are matched with the level of education, whereas only 27% of those working in industry and private enterprise find that their doctoral degree is relevant to their job duties and responsibilities. In this regard, it is worth pointing out that it is in industry and private enterprise where doctoral degree holders have the highest level of job stability (permanent contracts).

In addition, the match percentage has decreased compared to 2011 by 8 percentage points, and this is true for all disciplines and all jobs (university, research institute and industry and private enterprise).

Figure 2. Match of job duties according to discipline


In recent years, emigration has been considered to be one way of obtaining an appropriate job, and the figures show that 89% of doctoral degree holders working abroad are in jobs where their doctoral degree is relevant (education-job match), whereas the corresponding figure for those in Spain is 55%. Nevertheless, the contractual stability of doctoral degree holders who emigrate is lower than those in Spain, given that the percentage of permanent contracts is lower (19% of emigrant doctoral degree holders compared to 50% of the doctoral degree holders in Spain).

It is also worth pointing out that almost all doctoral degree holders (97%) are employed in jobs in which their duties and responsibilities are on a level with university studies.

Satisfaction with doctoral studies

Overall satisfaction with doctoral studies is rated highly (7.4 out of 10) by doctoral degree holders, and this value has constantly increased compared to 2008. The most highly rated factors, from highest to lowest, are: the quality of thesis supervision, the quality of the resources and their availability, the quality of in-class tutoring.

The rating given by doctoral degree holders for the level of competence (skills) achievement is, for most competences, also between 7 and 8. Nonetheless, teamwork was only rated at 6.4 and languages 5.6.

In addition, 85% of doctoral degree holders stated they would take the same doctoral studies again. This percentage oscillates between 87% in Experimental Sciences and Health Sciences and 77% in Humanities.

Figure 3. Assessment of the level of competence (skills) achievement (scale from 0 to 10)


Characteristics of the thesis and other academic aspects

The average duration of doctoral studies is 5.6 years. Relevant figures as regards the job situation of doctoral degree students are that 50% work in internships, 27% have jobs connected with their pre-doctoral studies, and 13% are either teachers or research workers. In this regard, doctoral degree holders who have been awarded a scholarship for their doctoral studies tend to obtain their doctoral degree award more quickly.

Work on the doctoral thesis can either be done individually or as part of a research group. In the case of individual work, there is greater autonomy in terms of both the subject to be developed and how it is to be carried out. In the case of forming part of a research group, the work environment is more like that in which research work is usually carried out, with higher possibilities of interaction; on the other hand, there is the risk of an individual’s final contribution being diluted. The percentage of doctoral degree holders who wrote their thesis within a research group has been increasing in recent years, reaching 67% in 2014, although there are important differences between the disciplines (around 41% in Social Sciences to 90% in Experimental Sciences). It should be pointed out that doctoral degree holders who have written their thesis within a research group reported a higher degree of satisfaction as regards the development of all competences and skills considered in the survey compared to that of doctoral degree holders who wrote their thesis independently.

In addition, the presentation of research work in internal seminars in the department is an opportunity for doctoral students to find ways of improving their research, of disseminating their research and of learning how to defend their work in a relaxed setting. The percentage of doctoral degree holders who participate in internal seminars has increased over time to 75% in 2014.


The high level of attractiveness of the Catalan university system, as regards doctoral degrees, is reflected in the fact that one third of all doctoral degree holders between 2009 and 2010 were foreigners. 60% of all foreign doctoral degree holders come from Latin America, mainly Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Chile, while 32% are from Europe, mainly Italy.

Other indicators of the internationalisation of doctoral studies have shown a constant increase. For example, the number of theses written in English in 2014 was 54% higher than in 2008 and account for 33% of the total. The number of European doctoral awards also went up from 10% to 14% in the same period.

Promotion of mobility abroad is one of the stated objectives of the European Commission’s Europe 2020 Strategy. In this regard, doctoral degree holders from Catalan universities comply with this objective in reaching a 20% level of mobility at each level of university studies, due to the fact that half of all doctoral degree holders have undertaken research leave abroad during their doctoral studies. In addition, after obtaining their doctoral award, 31% undertake research leave abroad. 


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