I started the Thesis Whisperer to help PhD students finish. In the last five years I’ve extended that mission to helping people get jobs after they graduate. It’s my firm belief that, although the world has 99 problems right now, research can fix a lot of them. Therefore researchers need to be able to put their considerable talents to work.
Sadly, this path to decent jobs can be difficult. Researchers are some of the most talented people in the world. They shouldn’t have to settle for bullshit precarious, casualised work – and yet many feel that is their only choice. It makes me so mad to see people stuck doing ‘hope labour’ in the academy. If academia cannot offer you a non-bullshit job, then other people will. But sometimes it’s hard to find that research inclined employer – especially when your work is so niche.
I spend all my research time on this problem of matching researchers with jobs inside and outside the academy. Information is power: if you can see the opportunity landscape clearly, you can make some considered choices. As a researcher, since the pandemic began, I’ve been asking myself two questions:
1) what will the pandemic do to the job market for PhD graduates?
2) will some people seeking academic work be more affected than others?
We’ve been doing research on this for 18 months and we are finally in the position to offer some provisional answers. I don’t do this research by myself – it’s too hard. I helped put together the PostAc team to work on these big problems. Here’s the lovely members of the team, posed in my office:
From left to right: Dr Will Grant, Dr Lindsay Hogan, Assoc Prof Hanna Suominen, Prof Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer), Chirath Hettiarachchi, Chenchen Xu and Ran Cui.
We’re a multi-disciplinary team who use machine learning natural language processing (ML-NLP) to build algorithms. These algorithms scan huge sets of job ad data from Burning Glass Technologies to find research intensive jobs. Basically, the PostAc® algorithm can ‘read’ job advertisements and decide how nerdy they are. It then ranks jobs on a ‘nerdiness index’ from 1 (not nerdy) to 10 (super nerdy). The output of the algorithm looks like this:
The Burning Glass feed is pre-sorted by industry, so we can see the opportunities for PhD graduates in different kinds of work. (Bear with me UK readers – these are Australian figures. We’re working on analysing your job market and will have it available soon). Here’s the top 20 industries looking for researchers in Australia during 2017, pre-pandemic:
The largest number of jobs in this analysis was in Government – both state and federal. Science is much smaller because there are not as many jobs in labs as there are in government policy and administration. This analysis shows that researchers of all stripes can find good, well paid work outside of academia, using the skills they learned during their PhD.
While it’s very useful to know where the jobs are outside of academia, what about if you want to stay?
There’s a lot of panic about Covid destroying the Australian Higher Education sector and there’s no doubt that our institutions are suffering financially, but are there less jobs now, 18 months in?
We just relased a Covid Impact Report that shows what has been happening.
The Burning Glass data is fantastic, but it only sorts jobs by sector – not by academic discipline. During the last year we designed another algorithm that can read job ads and sort them by the Australian field of research code – or FOR. (I personally marked up over 9600 job ads to get this algorithm working – you’re welcome!). This new algorithm enables us to give you a picture of the demand for academics in different fields.
As expected, there was a massive drop in 2020, but the academic job market in Australia seems to have already bounced back to pre-pandemic levels:
How do we account for this recovery? It’s estimated that over 20,000 higher education workers lost their jobs in 2020. Our analysis only shows job ads – so I can’t comment on the casual job market, which is largely direct employment and thus doesn’t make it to an advertisement. I know it’s been brutal there, but anecdotally I hear it’s perked up a bit too.
We can only speculate on the unexpected health of the academic job market. A lot of people took voluntary redundancies. For years we’ve been told the baby boomers would retire – this is the first year I personally have seen lots of older workers leave. Perhaps these people left jobs that needed to be occupied by someone and the university had to re-hire? There is also an unexpectedly high retention of international students who are studying online, hoping to be able to enter Australia at a later date. At the same time, as international students graduate and leave, they are not being replaced at the same rate.
It’s hard to guess at what will happen next. Personally, I am pessimistic about higher education in 2022 if the country isn’t open, but it’s good to know the news isn’t entirely shitty, right? There are signs that more of these jobs are casual and fixed term though, so perhaps I shouldn’t get too excited.
Now to my second question – are some academic fields more affected than others? The short answer is ‘Yes’. Here is a table taken from our report (download the report if you have trouble reading the table here).
It’s always good to be in medical research in Australia – the government gives it a LOT of funding. The poor old philosophers won’t be surprised to see they went from terrible, to super terrible and have stayed terrible. Sorry.
So what do you do if you are a philosophy PhD faced with only 6 jobs? It’s probably best to look elsewhere. The good news on that front is the demand for research skills has never been stronger. Our data show that the number of job ads for non-academic research oriented jobs has soared:
The jobs are all over the sector, but it won’t surprise you to hear that supermarkets doubled their demand for research skilled people. That online shopping, click and collect and so on generates masses of data and needs skilled people to design systems to support it. But just about all sectors are up, so I’m confident there will be something out there for most people. Of course, the current lockdown affecting more than half of Australia may well affect the size and shape of the job market again. Job ads are like canaries in the coalmine: it’s one of the first places you see an economy in distress.
This is why we continue to do the work – we will update you on the job situation again at the end of the year.
We have commercialised our algortihm via the PostAc platform, to make it useful to you and to keep funding this work. The exciting news is that a new version of the PostAc job searching platform will be available soon for university subscribers. The current version of PostAc has archived jobs that you can use to research your options. The new version of PostAc will also have live jobs you can apply for right now.
Some universities in Australia have subscribed to PostAc already, so ask your graduate school for access. (ANU students, you get access to the current version of the product – go to postac.com.au and make an account with your ANU email address. It takes 24 hours to validate your account).
Here’s a couple of links if you are interested in more detail about anything I’ve said so far:
- Download the ’18 months in’ Covid impact report.
- Visit the PostAc page for more information about the product.
- If you would like your university to sign up for PostAc, you can express your interest here and we will let your university know you are keen!
- Download the new PostAc Brochure – for university purchasers
- I am giving a free lecture about this work via Zoom to any university that requests it for their PhD students. There are more details available in the slide deck here.
We’re working hard on making PostAc available outside Australia, which will involve more reports like this for other countries. Stay tuned and sending you all the best if you are in lockdown, like me! Comments are now off on the Whisperer – but you can talk to me on Twitter: @thesiswhisperer
PS: for On The Reg listeners who are missing @jasondowns, the latest episode is the last one we recorded before he went off on long service leave. You’ll have to wait until November to hear him again while he is on #epictrip2021 🙁
You can subscribe via your favourite podcast player here. There’s a soundbite below:
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