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Published 29 October 2020

Professor Wendy Larner's final presidential address

Tonight, Professor Wendy Larner FRSNZ FAcSS FNZGS of Victoria University of Wellington—Te Herenga Waka gave her final presidential address for Royal Society Te Apārangi.

He iti hau marangai, e tū te pāhokahoka
After the storm comes a rainbow.

E ngā maunga kōrero o te motu
e ngā tai nunui
e ngā tai roro akua whati mai nei ki tātou kaupapa rangatira i te rā nei
tēnā koutou, tēnā  koutou, tēnā koutou katoa

View photos from this event.

Introduction

When I came into the role of President of Royal Society Te Apārangi nearly three years ago I was very clear about the priorities I had for my presidential term:

  • addressing issues of equity and diversity in all their forms,
  • strengthening relationships with Māori researchers and te ao Māori, and
  • considering how our research system might better support early career researchers.

Of course, these three ambitions are not mutually exclusive, but tonight I will be explicitly focussing on the question of our collective future; namely the new generation of researchers who will be, and shape, Aotearoa’s research sector in the years to come. 

It will come as no surprise (I hope) to anyone in this room that today the pressures on early career researchers are intense, and increasingly so. I remember when I myself was an early career academic having a discussion with an older colleague.  ‘You young things’, he said to me, ‘ I don’t know how you do it.  The expectations on your generation are so much more than they were when I was starting out’. Now that I’m older and wiser (and greyer!) I have the same reaction. I look at my early career colleagues and the expectations they are negotiating and I also wonder ‘you young things, I don’t know how you do it’. 

And, of course, as members of our own Early Career Research Forum have recently shown us, the current COVID-19 situation has exacerbated and amplified many unresolved issues for early career researchers¹.  As New Zealand research organisations have begun to make tough decisions about staffing in the context of discussions about their future shape, size and composition, the risk is that it is early career researchers who are particularly exposed in a changing and contracting labour market. This cohort contains more women, more Māori and more Pasifika researchers than the existing research workforce. So this is a challenge. Not just for them but for all of us because – as I have already said - they are our future: exemplary in their ability to address future research agendas, agile in their mahi, and provocative in their discussions. 

This is my starting point for tonight. The experiences of the current generation of early career researchers is very different to the last. This generation is different demographically, they are different socially, and they are entering a very different, and rapidly changing, labour market both nationally and internationally. However, these labour market changes are not simply a matter of our research organisations making blinkered decisions. To be blunt, there are now too many PhD graduates for too few academic jobs.  What does this mean for our research sector and our collective research futures? 

Let me begin by painting with a broad brush, before I turn my attention specifically to Aotearoa New Zealand. 

International context

While today we assume the existence and value of a doctoral degree, it is important to remember that the PhD as we now understand it only dates back to the early 20th century. The advanced degrees, rather than research training degrees, that existed prior to this time were once described by Cambridge mathematician Harold Jeffreys as ‘being more or less the equivalent to being proposed for the Royal Society’. In 1900, only 300 PhDs were awarded annually in the United States, most of them by six universities. It was only in 1917 that the UK introduced the PhD degree, along the lines of the American and German model.  While this new degree quickly became popular, it is easy to forget that until a generation ago it was still relatively common for universities to be largely staffed by academics who did not have doctoral degrees, particularly in professional disciplines such as law, education and architecture. 

Since the 1980s the numbers of people embarking on doctoral study have become significant, and is continuing to grow steadily.  This growth is particularly apparent in large economies such as China and India where there is a strong demand for higher skills linked to national economic development ambitions.  Indeed you might be surprised to know that China is now the world’s largest producer of PhDs. This growth in doctoral graduates has been driven by policy changes that have made doctoral study more accessible to domestic candidates, increased international enrolments in doctoral study, and incentivised universities to increase the number of places they offer. This trend has also underpinned the rise of the academic mobility and international doctoral students. Once the preserve of the elite or the lucky few with fully funded government scholarships, governments and individuals have increasingly supported offshore study as a way to foster both economic development and ‘human capital’. 

Changes in universities

Universities themselves have changed during this period. As the emphasis on externally funded research has increased, so too has the proportion of research-only staff grown. In part this is the result of changes I explored in last year’s Presidential Address: the rise of large interdisciplinary, sometimes cross-sectoral teams, focussed on so-called ‘grand challenge problems’. You will be familiar with the research model that has emerged – particularly in the more applied disciplines – in which a senior researcher serves as the Principal Investigator on a grant that employs a team of earlier career researchers, many of whom are likely to be on temporary contracts. If the senior researcher continues to bring in the large grants, then the research team remains intact. If for whatever reason that money dries up – because funder’s research priorities pivot, quality declines, or the senior researcher moves on – then the earlier career researchers employed through these grants find themselves having to look for opportunities elsewhere. 

The landscape for teaching is also changing. The massification of education and an increasing emphasis on new pedagogical approaches and teaching technologies means that individual academics are more likely to need a team of people around them to deliver their courses. This is particularly the case in the so-called STEM and practice-based disciplines where hands-on experience matters. Again, the response here has been to rely on a cohort of earlier career academics who can be brought in as teaching fellows, tutors and demonstrators. More recently, this cohort has included learning designers and teaching technologists, many of whom are also our former doctoral students.  Of course Covid-19, and the shift towards online learning, has further accentuated this trend. Many early career academics now find themselves in teaching-intensive positions, whether or not this is indeed their preferred career. 

The third shift in universities has been the growth of ‘intermediary’ roles. As universities have become more engaged with their communities, so too has this heightened the need for those who can broker between the academic world and others. The result is a cohort of new actors: science communicators, public engagement experts, social entrepreneurs, consultants and political activists amongst others. These people may have toe-holds in the university but are also likely to work across sectors, create their own jobs and often hold more than one role at a time. This too is a growing labour market destination for many doctoral graduates. 

The rise of the precariat

So while initially the purpose of the PhD was to gain advanced training for a career in academia, with people then moving into relatively homogeneous academic roles with a standard 40/40/20 workload (research/teaching/service), today those doctoral students who stay in universities after they graduate find themselves in a much wider array of roles with varying opportunities for research careers. It is in this context that internationally, there is a great deal of discussion about the casualisation and/or ‘adjunctification’ of the academic labour market. Because the ‘supply’ of doctoral graduates far exceeds the ‘demand’ for traditional permanent positions available in universities, many early career colleagues find themselves moving from short term contract to short term contract. We also know that those who are already under-represented in the academy (women, minority groups) are often over-represented in the academic precariat. 

In short, there is now a global over-supply of those with doctoral qualifications relative to the secure opportunities that exist in universities.  More specifically, the research roles that the majority of doctoral students are being prepared for (and often wish to pursue) are in increasingly short supply.  In this context, it is not surprising that increasing numbers of PhD graduates are finding their way into other careers. This has long been the case in disciplines like chemistry where the route into industry has long been established, but is increasingly the case for all disciplines. Many doctoral graduates are now working in roles in policy, industry or indeed even creating their own jobs. The statistics vary from country to country, and are impacted by wider labour market structures, but often quoted figures include the prediction by Harvard labour economist Richard B. Freeman that, based on pre-2000 data, only 20% of life science PhD students would ever gain a faculty job in the US.    

New Zealand early career researchers

These are international trends.  What about New Zealand? 

PhD programmes were first delivered in significant numbers in New Zealand universities during the 1970s. At that time the universities were growing rapidly, and preparing PhD graduates to work in our universities and the government research laboratories made sense.  Since that time, whilst some flexibility has been introduced, by and large the PhD is still preparing graduates to undertake research in an academic context. Like other countries we have also seen a significant growth in the number of PhD graduates in recent years. Andrew Cleland has been digging out the data and has developed a detailed analysis we are happy to share with you. Tonight I will focus on the headlines.   

In recent years New Zealand has seen a net increase of around 1,000 PhD graduates per annum in the working-age population. This is the result of both increased graduation rates and skilled migration. Focussing specifically on New Zealand graduates, in 2002 there were 490 doctoral completions in our universities. By 2018 this had risen to about 1,450 per year. This growth in PhD numbers reflects the international trends discussed above, but was also subsequently incentivised by the design of the Performance Based Research Fund for which doctoral completions are a measure of research excellence. 

Many of you will know that New Zealand also has a relatively high percentage of international doctoral students. Since 2005 international doctoral students have paid domestic fees in New Zealand, as well as receiving full work rights for themselves and their partner and domestic school fees for their children.  This policy decision was intended to raise the quality and output of academic research, as well as significantly raising national research and educational capabilities. While prior to this initiative around 10% of the total PhDs in New Zealand were international students, today the numbers of domestic and international students are close to parity. To put this in actual numbers and to return to the slide: in 2002 there were only 45 international doctoral completions, but by 2018 the number was up to 750, slightly exceeding the 710 domestic graduations that year.  A number of these will stay in New Zealand, also seeking roles in our research organisations. 

More generally New Zealand’s research sector is highly internationalised.  Many of our university and Crown Research Institute staff are recruited from offshore (including me!). This is particularly the case for earlier career researchers as New Zealand universities have been able to pick and choose in an increasingly tight academic international labour market.  In other words, if you are a doctoral graduate from a North American university and the choice is between a non-research job in your home country and a research job in New Zealand, we look pretty attractive. Crown Research Institutes have also begun recruiting increasing numbers of international early career researchers as they have struggled to find appropriately skilled local candidates. 

On the face of it, these trends have been terrific for our research institutions. The research intensity of our universities has increased, we tend to score highly on ‘internationalisation’ and ‘collaboration’ indices, and of course these researchers and doctoral students have brought their international networks, helping with both impact and citations. Academic research on diasporic academics, including my own, has underlined the importance of these networks to wider national economic development strategies and university ambitions for internationalisation. 

What fields of study? 

Andrew has also been digging into the doctoral competition data. What we can see from this data is that the largest numbers of doctoral completions are in the two categories of Natural and Physical Sciences, and Society and Culture. The numbers in the categories Health and Engineering are also significant.  Unsurprisingly, given the context above, growth in international doctoral completions is particularly strong in those disciplines - Sciences and Engineering - often seen as contributing directly to economic development ambitions and the private sector. Domestic completions are strong in Health and Society and Culture – disciplines more likely to seek employment in the public sector. 

What this more detailed analysis also shows is that whilst the universities have increased their employment of doctorate graduates over the last 15-20 years (and employ 20-25% of work-age PhD graduates in New Zealand), supply has far outstripped demand. Even after taking into account the need to replace those leaving the academic workforce permanently, the growth in research-related roles outside the universities, and the shift towards a greater headcount via part-time employment, the majority of newly graduated PhDs in New Zealand have needed to look beyond universities for employment opportunities for some years now, and this is not likely to change.  

Over the last ten years there has been gender equity in the graduating cohort, although women are slightly over-represented amongst domestic graduates (55-60%). However, what this table shows - in a snapshot of gender differences for 2018 in some major fields – is that women are more likely than men to complete PhDs in disciplines in which research employment opportunities are more limited, both within and beyond the universities.

There is a similar challenge in terms of ethnicity. Overall Māori and Pasifika remain significantly under-represented amongst our doctoral graduates: of the domestic graduates in 2018 there were about 71% NZ European, 9% Māori, 4% Pasifika, 17% Asian with the balance being other or unknown.  This pipeline issue helps explain the slowly growing percentages of Māori and Pacific academics, as discussed in recent publications such as Why Isn’t my Professor Māori?² In 2019 there were only 365 Māori, 100 Pacific and 725 people of Asian ethnicity at lecturer level or above in a total university academic workforce of about 6,800. The participation by Māori and Pacific graduates in the CRI sector is also low. These figures are shaped by the trends in the fields of study as above. For example, in 2018, the 70 Māori and 25 Pacific PhD graduates were primarily in Health and Society and Culture, with low participation in Engineering and Science.   

Beyond the universities

The inescapable conclusion is that, in New Zealand like elsewhere, the bulk of newly graduated PhDs will need to look beyond our universities for employment, and this is not likely to change. So what are the other options? 

The other tertiary education organisations (primarily wānanga and institutes of technology and polytechnics) are still relatively minor employers of PhD graduates. Collectively, they entered only 600 research-active FTEs in the 2018 PBRF. Indeed in many such organisations it is often existing staff who complete PhDs and become research-active, and many of their research-active staff do not hold PhDs. Recently the ITP sector has been contracting and the wānanga sector growing relatively slowly. Overall, it is likely that these sectors are not absorbing any more than a small part of the extra PhD graduates entering the workforce year on year.

The creation of the CRIs in the early 1990s formed organisations focussed on applied and commercial research and incentivised to seek external funding. This means that the skills those organisations seek are more likely to be different from the attributes of a more academically-prepared PhD graduate. To put it bluntly, the CRIs (and Independent Research Organisations) who currently employ some 2,000 to 3,000 staff with postgraduate qualifications are incentivised by our research system settings to find and employ PhD graduates whose skills are immediately suitable for generating new commercial income.

Because our economy is a SME economy, career paths into industry in New Zealand are fewer than they would be in larger economies.  Nor do we have large numbers of think tanks and other research organisations found in other settings. The result is wide spread concerns about an oversupply of doctoral graduates, with individuals consequently unable to find jobs that suit their skills and qualifications. The diagram below is dated but remains a powerful representation of the issues.  Indeed, if anything the trends have been accentuated, and now characterise the research sector more generally. 

What needs to be done?   

In many other countries – but only to a limited extent to date in New Zealand - there has been an explicit acknowledgement of these wider labour force changes. Investigations into the nature and role of doctoral training have been the focus of major government reviews in countries like Australia and the UK. International organisations like the OECD have also turned their attention to this matter. The starting point for these reviews is the increasing mis-match between the skills of recent PhD graduates and those their future employers may seek.  So what can we learn from this international experience that would be relevant to New Zealand?  As you will see from this slide there are a number of levers that can be pulled, and many of you in this room have your hands on some of these levers. I want to focus my comments in the remainder of my time tonight on doctoral training. 

First of all, I think we need to start having more honest conversations about the labour market context in order to manage the expectations of PhD students and early career researchers. Our early career colleagues need quality advice on where research careers can lead, and how research career paths are changing. Our universities need to take much of the responsibility for this. We need to tell them that gaining a doctoral degree, or even securing a post-doctoral fellowship, is no guarantee of an academic career. Their highly developed analytical skills will be valued by, and provide excellent value to, employers but these employers may not be universities or even other research organisations. If all PhD students received good quality information on their career prospects, this in itself would be a good first step.  

Second, we need to help our doctoral students understand the skills they are learning beyond their subject or discipline knowledge. The emphasis in doctoral training needs to shift from a singular focus on a ‘master-discipline’ or ‘apprenticeship’ model of the PhD to one that places much more emphasis on generic skills training such as teamwork, knowledge exchange and research dissemination.  This explicit emphasis on generic skills would better equip doctoral graduates for future employment in industry, government and civil society organisations, rather than assuming they will all find jobs in universities and/or other research organisations. It will also address some of the challenges with an overly individualised model of doctoral research that too often plays on wider personal insecurities, and does not produce the collaborative, collegial graduates we need. 

Indeed my own view is that generic skills training should become a core of all New Zealand PhD programmes. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. For example, the Royal Society³ (London) has provided a recommended set of guidelines for assisting PhD students better plan their careers, intended to be supported by higher educational institutions delivering personal development programmes. Many people here will also be familiar with the UK’s Vitae Researcher Development programme⁴.

This is something that New Zealand universities could also develop: a programme of transferable skills training that prepare students for a range of careers, including training in enterprise and innovation as well as professional development skills such as communications and public engagement. Whatever their ultimate career destination, our doctoral students would then better understand how to effectively use research outputs in policy making and community engagement, develop outreach and public dialogue skills, and understand the importance of communication, networking and research dissemination.  

Third, and more ambitiously, we could place greater emphasis on porosity, placements and co-produced projects by moving towards explicitly designed collaborative studentships. The September 2019 draft MBIE Research Science and Innovation Strategy recognises the issue of weak connections of researchers to end users in this country. Other countries have intervened to address this gap through cooperative schemes fostering end-user/academic interactions on PhD programmes. Indeed I understand that New Zealand has previously had similar, but relatively small schemes, offered through Callaghan Innovation to improve academia/industry links such as the Callaghan Innovation R&D Fellowship grants. This is also the issue that McDiarmidInstitute Co-Directors Nicola Gaston and Justin Hodgkiss have addressed in their recent commentary on post-doctoral researchers⁵, but my point is that this model has much greater applicability. 

The conceptual model for a collaborative PhD involves the research programme becoming much more flexible, with the doctoral student working on a real problem of a private sector or non-profit organisation (the sponsor). The student might undertake a significant part of their research on the sponsor’s premises, being visited by the supervisor, and their programme would be designed to enable a range of outputs rather than just an academic thesis. The sponsoring organisation might support the student through co-funding, in-kind resources, or access to specific research resources (or a combination thereof).  Not only is this approach relevant (and proven) in industry settings but my hunch is that this approach might be particularly appropriate in Te Ao Māori and Pasifika contexts. 

The benefits of this greater porosity are many. Not only will it encourage PhD research that addresses real-world problems and opportunities, but it will also produce PhD graduates with practical knowledge that will make them more employable both within and beyond the research sector. It addresses some of the issues of isolation that characterise the master-discipline model, thereby helping build more resilient graduates. If, when they graduate, they remain within the research sector they will have connections they can continue to utilise as they pursue academic careers. In either case, deeper linkages between universities and other sectors will be facilitated, and our PhD graduates are likely to generate more relevant impactful knowledge in areas directly relevant to the New Zealand economy and society.

There would also be benefits in extending collaborative PhD schemes to CRIs and IROs. If a CRI or IRO forecast a future need for new staff in a particular discipline, they could use this model to support PhD students, working in partnership with universities but with the project based on the CRI or IRO premises. That would then create a labour pool for the CRI or IRO to draw on in due course. Wider extensions across the public sector, e.g. into social as well as scientific delivery agencies, could also be contemplated. There is also a particular timeliness to this; for example, in the context of COVID-19, where our doctoral cohort is likely to be much more domestically focused – at least in the short term – it may also help with developing skills and knowledges in local demand such as kaupapa Māori and mātauranga Māori. 

Conclusion

The PhD is no longer an apprenticeship for a guaranteed university career. My argument is that in Aotearoa New Zealand we need to rethink our doctoral training in order to produce more polyvalent graduates who can develop fulfilling careers in a wider range of settings. These settings will not only include the growing and more disparate range of research roles, but also the new opportunities in engagement, industry, communities and policy.  I want to open up a discussion about how doctoral (and post-doctoral) opportunities can provide a stronger basis for more diverse careers, and better support our early career colleagues accordingly. 

More generally, it is important to reiterate that the research funding models in place in many countries incentivise the career-building of a senior researcher with the labour of a yet-to-be permanently employed early career researcher.  This funding model Is efficient in that it buys lots of research per dollar invested, but operates at very significant human cost for those in the academic precariat. In New Zealand that human cost is borne disproportionately by women, Māori and Pacific researchers.  If diversity and inclusion are really important to this country, then we need to be prepared to look at how the wider settings in our research system are delivering unintended perverse outcomes.   I know that many of you here will share these concerns.  Royal Society Te Apārangi is currently planning a workshop that might help us collectively understand better what our next steps should be.  I look forward to further kōrero with you all. 

Nō reira, me mutu i konei
Ngā mihi maioha thank you
I am delighted that you could join us here tonight. 
Mauri ora. 



¹ Covid-19 isn’t quite the boon for science researchers it might seem (The Spinoff)
² Why isn't my professor Māori? (MAI Journal)
³ Doctoral students’ career expectations (The Royal Society)
About the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (Vitae)
Postdocs: the key to NZ's post-Covid recovery (Stuff)
 

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi