What Becomes of Sweden's Ph.D.s?

The road to a Ph.D. degree may be hard and thorny, but when you finally get it, don't expect it to be a bed of roses. Not in Sweden anyway.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD's) 2003 report, " Education at a Glance", among OECD countries, Sweden produces the most new Ph.D.s, which isn't surprising finding given the Swedish government's pro-higher-education stance; in 2001, Sweden proposed to double the number of new Ph.D. graduates in the coming ten-year-period. There was no prerequisite that the future supply should match the future demand. In fact, due to government cuts, positions for postdocs in academia are now fewer than they have been in the past. That, combined with a lack of awareness of the diverse employment opportunities for Ph.D.s outside the ivory tower, has caused concern and prompted some action.

An increase in the number of Ph.D.s is not new to Sweden. Over the period 1990-2001, the number of Ph.D.s granted increased to 69% according to the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (only available in Swedish). At the Karolinska Institutet medical university in Stockholm, for example, more than 300 new Ph.D.s are awarded each year, compared to fewer than 130 in 1990. Lund University in southern Sweden has doubled the number of graduate students in medical research during the same period. The reality is that only a small percentage of all these future Ph.D.s can expect to be able to stay on at the university's medical faculty.

Job Market Not Keeping Pace

"The universities admit too many graduate students who end up in a cul-de-sac due to the lack of academic research posts for new Ph.D.s", says graduate-student spokesperson Kerstin Beckenius from Karolinska.

Indeed, the job market isn't keeping up. Statistics from August of last year from the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF) (only available in Swedish) show that although having a graduate education does lower your likelihood of facing unemployment (4.8% versus 6.2 % for the general population), discipline-specific groups have unemployment rates much higher than this, and higher than the national average. While low unemployment -- under 3% -- is found in medicine, manufacturing engineering, and agriculture and forestry, 12.7% of biology and environmental sciences Ph.D.s, 10.4% of computer science Ph.D.s, and 7.2% of physics, chemistry and geosciences Ph.D.s are unemployed.

Still, politicians continue to talk of the need for more science and technology experts in order to stay on the cutting edge in industrial development. Kristina Lejon, a former Stanford University postdoc now at Umeå University, is one of the few Ph.D.s in medical biosciences who has managed to stay on within academe in Sweden. Lejon is currently working as a forskarassistent --a 6-year long post that bridges the gap between doctoral and lecturer/professorial level. She is critical of the government's strategy and feels that they should decide to stop promoting graduate science education or at least be honest about career opportunities.

"If Swedish politicians don't want to make such a decision, they should be very open about the prospects for doctoral students. They should clearly state that graduate education is more about raising the general level of education in the Swedish population than about giving graduate students a chance to continue within their chosen field," Lejon says.

Even those who manage to secure employment may not find the conditions ideal. A recent report from Statistics Sweden shows that more than 20% of those with Ph.D.s in science and medical research feel that there is no correspondence between their current jobs and their doctoral research. Moreover, 25% of 1999-2001 Ph.D. graduates say they would not have gone into graduate studies if they could have predicted the present employment situation.

"I find these figures both sad and frightening, bearing in mind all the money spent by the state and private sources on graduate education," says Lejon.

At the university level, the major factor pinching postdoc jobs is tight budgetary constraints. "When the universities must produce a certain number of Ph.D.s and have a certain number of tenured professors and senior lecturers on the payroll, the only thing left to cut down on is the number of posts for young researchers," says Robert Andersson of the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF). He is pointing especially to the forskarassistenter posts that are traditionally the middle layer of academia. These positions, he notes--and it is also a common complaint--are increasingly difficult to find.

Not that it's an ideal situation for the universities either; qualified scientists mid-way into research careers will be needed urgently within the next decade. Demographics indicate that the "baby boomers" of the 1940s, who are now in their 60s and hold many of the highest posts at departments and institutes, will soon retire, leaving lots of openings for young scientists who might by then have already been forced to leave the field.

A Turn in the Tide?

The difficulties facing Ph.D. graduates are not simply because the supply and demand seem out of equilibrium; a lack of general awareness of where Ph.D.s can get employment in academic, industrial, and public service sectors is exacerbating the problem. Most Swedish universities have no career offices, and although career fairs where prospective employers and employees get together are common at the undergraduate level, they are a rare commodity for Ph.D.s. However, the success of a recent career event --"Future Faculty"--in Lund might be a turn in the tide.

Future Faculty -- a network of young researchers based at Lund University -- recently organised a conference called "Career Options in Bioscience" to explore career possibilities for Ph.D.s. working in those fields. The main aim of the conference was to give doctoral students a chance to get in contact with possible employers--in southern Sweden and Denmark--outside the university world to discuss job applications, CVs, and so on. Representatives from biotechnology and pharmacology, in addition to recruitment companies and patent offices, were there to participate actively.

Future Faculty's Anette Gjörloff-Wingren found the employers feedback at the event to be positive: "They [the attendees] were told that there are job opportunities, but that the applicant has to have a clear idea of what he or she wants as well as of what he or she can offer. Also, you have to introduce yourself actively to prospective employers. Just waiting passively is no good."

Gjörloff-Wingren feels that young scientists should be more open-minded about possible careers. For example, a medical research Ph.D. graduate doesn't necessarily have to stay in research, but could also work in a patent office, in marketing, or in clinical trials.

Obvious employers of scientists in Swedish industry include Ericsson, ABB, and AstraZeneca, all of which operate substantial R&D departments and hire Ph.D.s. Mid-sized Swedish companies, however,--a major portion of the Swedish employment market--are more wary of employing Ph.D.s, and perceptions are not easy to break. "They don't realise that graduate studies not only confer knowledge within a very special and perhaps narrow field, but also a general skill in methodology, analysis, and knowledge-seeking," says Inger Grufman of the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers.

Despite this, Grufman doesn't believe that young science and technology students should shelve the idea of doing a Ph.D. She points out that although some technology Ph.D.s have difficulties finding appropriate jobs in industry, those who do find jobs have more interesting tasks and better career chances than their peers.

Take food technology Ph.D. Frédéric Prothon, who found a position relevant to his Ph.D. and is satisfied. Prothon was registered at Lund University for his Ph.D. but belonged to a research programme at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) . The aim of this programme, Future Technologies for Food Production, is to produce new knowledge and new Ph.D.s for the benefit of the Swedish food industry.

However, it wasn't all smooth sailing for food-industry scientists. Since the start of the programme, several big firms in this sector have merged and moved their research outside Sweden. Out of the 15 former graduate students in Prothon's group only a few now work in the food industry. So how did Prothon secure his present position at Swedish Oat Fiber, a young company aimed at the export market?

"While at SIK, I had made some industry contacts through which I was given a commission to do a certain, temporary job for Swedish Oat Fiber. It turned out that I fit well into the group, and they had further use for me, so I've been able to stay on," he says.

Prothon believes that smaller food-industry enterprises in Sweden are often wary of employing Ph.D.s, supposing them to be too theoretical for an industrial setting. So it's important to jump on any chance to get inside a company, he says, since even a project of short duration may give a chance to show your worth.

Role models like Prothon are needed by Sweden's graduate students and Ph.D.s. While the government should seriously question its policy on training even more scientists for an already tight job market, a push is needed --at the grass roots level--to highlight today's career opportunities and exchange good practice. If the Future Faculty event is anything to go by, an appetite is definitely there. "All available places at the conference were filled, and everyone seemed very pleased with the event," says Future Faculty's Gjörloff-Wingren.

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