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Challenges beyond graduation

PhD graduates face struggle to find work

William Mur

It is becoming increasingly difficult for young doctors to enter the academic workforce. It is not just the high level of competition—in 2017 alone, more than 21,000 people graduated from PhD programs in Brazil—the current economic situation has also led to a decreasing number of positions for professors, assistant researchers, and postdoctoral fellowships, which are essential to scientific and intellectual development and offer the experience needed to establish and manage a laboratory or research group. The financial crisis has also affected teaching in the private sector. “In an effort to reduce costs, many private universities are hiring only the minimum number of doctors required by the Ministry of Education,” says biologist Hugo Fernandes-Ferreira, a professor of biology at the State University of Ceará (UECE) in Fortaleza.

Meanwhile, according to data from the Brazilian Management and Strategic Studies Center (CGEE), the number of doctors in the country grew by 486% between 1996 and 2014. This worrying outlook tends to increase pressure on young researchers. “People spend years preparing to be a researcher, and suddenly they need to look for a job in the nonacademic market, ending up in a situation where they have no opportunities to work as professors or researchers, but none of the experience desired by traditional employers,” says journalist Deisy Feitosa, who is studying a postdoctorate at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).

In order to address this issue, students have been encouraged to consider graduate education as a way of developing skills that can be applied to a diverse range of professional activities. USP, for example, this year started implementing mechanisms to help graduate students develop these skills. “We are mainly talking about corporate skills,” explains Tania Casado, a professor at the School of Economics, Business Administration, and Accounting (FEA) and director of the university’s Careers Office.

William Mur

Immunologist Phillipp Kruger, from the University of Oxford, UK, recently published an article in the journal Nature discussing how PhD students can prepare for different careers, both inside and outside academia. One of his recommendations is that students use their time to invest in the development of transferable skills, which are not highly technical and can be used in a diverse range of activities. According to Kruger, leadership skills, teamwork, and time management can make a big difference.

He also suggests that students contact their institution’s careers offices to find out about potential work opportunities and to discuss how their skills and preferences could be enhanced or adapted to other activities. “It is essential that while studying, students also invest in developing their communication and conflict resolution skills, for example,” says Tania.

She explains that professors can encourage students to attend classes on other courses, such as administration and psychology, where these issues are most discussed. “I graduated from UNESP [São Paulo State University] in 2008, and I only had one seminar on professional options for social scientists,” comments sociologist Alex Arbarotti. He completed his PhD three months ago at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCAR) and hopes to return to university, but having submitted his résumé to several private higher education institutions, he is yet to receive a response.

According to data from the Brazilian Management and Strategic Studies Center, the number of people with PhDs in Brazil grew by 486% between 1996 and 2014

Faced with a lack of work opportunities, some doctors choose to return to university to do a postdoctoral fellowship. As well as conducting research, this usually involves coordinating laboratory work, writing scientific articles, mentoring students, and helping to develop new lines of scientific research. Sometimes this works, as in the case for Fernandes-Ferreira. He started a postdoctoral fellowship in March 2015 after completing his PhD the year before. “In the time between graduating and starting the fellowship, I worked for an environmental consultancy, but the crisis was at its peak and the market was badly affected. The postdoctorate came at a very good time,” he says.

Biologist Patrícia Tachinardi was not so lucky. She completed her PhD in physiology at USP’s Institute of Biosciences (IB-USP) in May 2017. “I always wanted to pursue an academic career and decided to do a postdoctoral fellowship,” she says. But she has been unable to secure a grant to fund her research. “I started doing other jobs while I waited, such as teaching at a private school and writing content for textbooks.”

“PhD courses need to be combined with strategies that help graduates find work,” says Feitosa. She applied for internships both at university and elsewhere throughout her academic life. “I even did a master’s degree in digital television, hoping it would open doors for me in the private sector,” she says. The strategy worked. After completing her PhD, Feitosa was invited to put her training into practice. “I worked on the disconnection of analog television in Brazil. Two years later, I went on to do a postdoctorate.” For those who do not know where to start, Feitosa has some advice: “Investing in a course that combines academic experience and nonacademic training can be a great advantage during financial crises.”