The PhD graduate’s quandary in Malaysia: where are all the jobs?

by Dr. Alicia Izharuddin

Photo: / Flickr

Photo: / Flickr

One of the films that best allegorises the experience and purpose of pursuing a PhD degree is the sublime 2012 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi directed by David Gebb. Jiro, regarded by food critics and fans alike as the world’s greatest sushi chef, has spent decades mastering the art of preparing the best rice and fish for sushi. The film succeeds in portraying Jiro’s doggedness and passion that drove his initially unrewarding process of learning. After 50 years of learning – and Jiro is still learning – he is the master of something quite specialised, respected by the greatest of connoisseurs. 

In many ways, Jiro’s journey into sushi-making is much like that of pursuing a PhD. It belongs to the ‘old world’ of apprenticeship; you don’t just get a degree after some years that signifies you as an expert. Rather, the end of the apprenticeship heralds a new beginning of more hard work and few rewards. It’s not about the money, but about the endlessness of inquiry and curiosity. 

Getting a PhD – What Does It Really Mean?

For the general populace, the idea is chiefly quantitative: it seems to be better to have more academic qualifications. While the boost in social status that comes with possessing a PhD may be an attractive (but short term) incentive, the opportunities for sustaining such a status through employment may sometimes be elusive in Malaysia.

Current trends in Malaysia, however, appear to be unconcerned about job scarcity. Instead, there has been a big push towards producing more PhD holders. The Malaysian government’s quantitative approach to PhDs is manifested in the uniquely named MyBrain15 programme[1], which aims to produce 60,000 PhDs by 2023. While this approach is excellent in boosting access, it is chiefly quantitative, mechanistic, and may be driving PhD holders off a cliff into the abyss of potential unemployment.

So far, the MyBrain15 programme appears to progress as going to plan; those enrolled are mostly already affiliated with Malaysian universities. Upon completion of their studies, they will rejoin their employer armed with the talismanic title ‘Dr.’. This transition up the grade scale may facilitate those already within the university, but it is a closed-door policy for PhD holders who are not funded by MyBrain15. Furthermore, job vacancies for doctorate holders in Malaysian universities are less forthcoming about job description and salary scales. Despite this, competition for coveted full-time appointments is stiff.

Findings from a recent survey conducted by Scientific Malaysian[2] has found that over 73% of Malaysian PhD graduates in the sciences wish to pursue a career in academia, with almost 60% of them fairly confident that they will be successful in doing so. The survey reveals personal snippets of ambition and sheer optimism that characterise the reasons why respondents stay on to do a PhD. Some respondents believe there are plenty of jobs in industry and Malaysian academia, much like those in developed countries.

However, the employment trend for PhDs in developed countries is rather grim. In the US, UK, and Australia, the job market bottleneck for qualified PhDs has been described as a crisis[3]. In more alarming terms: there are too many scientists[4] and not enough jobs. The Royal Society in the UK found that only 3.5% of science PhD graduates remain in long-term academic employment. Fewer than 0.5% eventually become professors. In Australia, only 1 in 8 of such graduates[5] get the research job they desire. Suffice to say, respondents of the Scientific Malaysian’s survey who wish to go abroad for work will benefit greatly from studying these trends.

Notwithstanding this grim state of affairs, PhD graduates (with teaching, supervision, and administrative experience plus multiple publications) who have the resilience and determination to apply for at least 50 positions in academia, will eventually get a job though not necessarily what they had expected or desired. Meanwhile, there is no new data on how long graduates stay employed in Malaysian academia, including those who will become professors. Will the PhD bottleneck found in the US, UK, and Australia exist in Malaysia? If the survey’s respondents are generally positive about their job prospects, what makes Malaysia different from the other countries mentioned?

(click to enlarge) Infographic by Kong Yink Heay

(click to enlarge)
Infographic by Kong Yink Heay

Academia or Industry?

Post-PhD employment is characterised by a shortage of permanent positions, but with more short-term contracts as full or part time research associates or postdoctoral research fellows and sessional lecturers. There are certainly alternatives to the traditional academic appointment. Some PhD holders, exhausted by the demands of an academic lifestyle, take another route into professional consulting in higher education and international development, or politics; Angela Merkel and Manmohan Singh are a few examples of world leaders with a real PhD.

There is a view that working in industry after completing one’s doctoral studies constitutes a ‘failure’. This view is not an unfounded one; the PhD is essentially a research apprenticeship to train an individual in the rigours of scholarship and the art of surviving in academia such as networking and management. If the endpoint of such an apprenticeship is not about producing original and exciting research, what was the point of slogging through 4 to 6 years of poverty and exploitation as a student?

Suggestions have been made in the UK on preparing PhD graduates for employment in industry and elsewhere outside academia. Transferable and ‘real world’ skills developed during one’s doctoral training are always useful in other skilled professions; such as administration and management (through seminar, conference and workshop organising), communication skills (via presentations, teaching, and supervision), and fundamentally, research abilities (in analysis, writing, and data processing). It is easy to overlook these broad valuable skills when the doctoral training is assumed to produce scientists who are only experts in narrow and highly specialised knowledge.

Research in Malaysia

The news that two top Malaysian institutes[6]have declined to be assessed by the 2014-2015 Times Higher Education global university index does not bode well for early career researchers. Indeed, world university rankings have their limitations[7]but such a refusal speaks volumes of the lack of engagement by Malaysia’s most established universities with the discourse of higher education on a global level.

Poor command of English[8] (and the apparent lack of will to improve) has been cited as an obstacle to producing high impact research in Malaysian universities. This is a curious conundrum worth investigating: why is the level of English deemed poor in Malaysian universities despite being one of the most spoken and written languages in the country? To be fair on academics, the practice of writing is difficult, a skill that has to be developed and mastered over a period of time. That crucial period is the time spent during the doctoral training and supported by on-campus departments specialised in academic career development.

Research in Malaysia is also largely hidden from public purview. The mystique of research could have a more damaging effect on Malaysian academia and industry than good. It conceals the tax-paying public from appreciating the impact of research. Opening up Malaysian academia to scrutiny by independent auditors of universities will reveal a range of weaknesses beyond those conjectured here and in reports elsewhere.

The linear progression of academic attainment in higher education needs to be dismantled for a more fluid and qualitative understanding of what the PhD is for. The PhD may be talismanic and its bearer may enjoy the social capital it brings. But in these highly competitive times, many will question the value of spending years in the wilderness of academia as a novice researcher. When confronted by the criticisms of the length and value of the PhD, it is comforting to take refuge in the grit and wisdom of Jiro the sushi chef.

This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10. Check out other articles in Issue 10 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10 (PDF version)










About the Author

DR. ALICIA IZHARUDDIN has a PhD in Gender Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She also holds a first class bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Find out more about Alicia at