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Is a PhD still relevant when companies prefer a skill-first approach?

16 Mar 2023

In today's skill-first culture where some companies are removing graduate degrees requirements for job candidates, the question that arises is: Are PhD degrees relevant anymore?

Some experts say the Return on Investment (ROI) of a PhD is not visible in the corporate world, at least in the initial stage. (Illustration by Suneesh Kalarickal)

That a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree confers special status on the holder in Indian society is undisputable.

Enrollment in PhD courses has been increasing year on year. In 2020, more than 25,000 students were awarded a PhD with science and engineering and technology students in the lead. According to OECD data, India ranks fourth among the countries by the number of PhD degrees awarded.

However, the number of jobs requiring a PhD has been between 2,000 and 9,000 in the last five years. According to the data on job portal foundit (previously Monster APAC & ME), shared exclusively with Moneycontrol, only 26,760 jobs that were posted on the platform since January 1, 2018, listed a PhD/Doctorate degree among their requirements.

Industries such as engineering and design, semiconductor manufacturing and railways specialty/infrastructure, among others, lagged behind with jobs calling for a PhD ranging from 1 percent-5 percent. Recruitment/staffing/Recruit Process Outsourcing (RPO) and Information Technology (IT) constituted a larger percentage (42 percent-28 percent) of jobs mandating a PhD.

In today's skill-first culture where some companies are removing the graduate degree requirements for job candidates, the question arises is: Are PhDs relevant anymore?

The question of quality

The question of quality supply and demand is confronting PhDs, too. Industry leaders with a doctorate degree point to the changing methods of assessment and how the focus of various industries is changing.

Dr Akshay Singhal, founder and CEO of deep-tech firm Log9 Materials, has seen that many students in their doctorate programmes become too one-directional in their thinking. He says that Research and Development is all about unlearning and learning, which is challenging with a reserved mindset.

“Especially in India, the doctorate programmes have become quite detached from the real-world application of technology and are merely driven by research article publication,” he said.

Singhal highlighted a trend of using random permutations and combinations of work done by renowned research labs to publish unique results without any real value-add.

“Moreover, the long-stretched tenures in certain institutes make the whole programme quite mundane and stressful which has an overall impact on the enthusiasm of the fresh doctoral students and also diminishes their innovativeness. As a result, many companies have not been able to get the value of hiring a PhD. holder,” he added.

Dr Amitabh Saran, CEO of Altigreen Propulsion Labs, guesses that if universities are lowering their standards, the dwindling number of research labs in India is responsible for fewer job opportunities. Still, he is hopeful of the future for PhD holders.

“All organisations focused on fundamental research like EV batteries, lightweight materials, or similar futuristic technologies, will and are hiring PhD,” he said.

Not for corporate aspirants?

Some experts say the Return on Investment (ROI) of a PhD is not visible in the corporate world, at least in the initial stage. The dependence factor on industry, role and focus of the employer has a larger role to play.

“If you are looking for a general management career, perhaps one could argue that a PhD does not offer any specific advantage,” said Dr Vishal Shah, VP of Leadership & Organisation Development at technology-led healthcare solutions provider Indegene.

Even so, if you are looking to acquire deep expert in an area or domain, then a PhD should give you an edge, he said. “Most big tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Intel etc have research wings that need people with deep research experience and a PhD is what such research-driven companies typically look for,” he said.

Without commenting on the corporate world, Dr Sheetal Shaparia, a life coach, said PhD holders have an advantage in the academic world. She explained that within 3-4 years of PhD completion, just 2-3 years of work experience is enough to get a candidate the position of senior faculty or assistant professor.

“Whereas even with 10 years of work experience but no PhD, you cannot become an assistant professor. So yes, a PhD is important,” she said.

Don’t just focus on financial ROI

As a communications professional, 28-year-old Shweta Vaid has always been drawn to research because it comprised 80 percent of her job responsibilities involving content writing that required in-depth analysis.

But she realised there needed to be more research skills in corporate employees and identified an opportunity to enhance her skills. So she enrolled in a PhD programme in mass communications to upskill herself.

“In a world where we are inundated with information, we must have the skills to filter out information irrelevant to a brand's messaging. Hence, critical thinking and advanced research skills are imperative,” she said.

Vaid believes PhD offers much more than just a financial return on investment!

Industry experts say a PhD degree generates new employment avenues along with equipping you with new skills. “The role of a PhD is not to enable participation in run-of-the-mill skill jobs of the present but to envisage the skills of the future,” added Dr Vishnu Ramachandran, co-founder & CTO at Rubix Data Sciences.

For example, he said, advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in every domain are a result of pioneering PhD research done by many people in the past and present. Research in the field has now simplified the application of AI and made it easy for the larger workforce to use it.

Ramachandran asserted that PhD aspirants must remember that obtaining a PhD degree is not the end of their research journey but the beginning.

“They must limit their research problems and scope to a realistic and manageable level. It is also important to keep themselves motivated throughout the journey because the PhD programme is open-ended, and it is easy to lose focus.”

The most important skill PhD holders ought to possess is that post-doctorate they must forget that they ever did a PhD and focus on the work at hand without any baggage, Ramachandran said. He adding: “This unlearning is the most vital ingredient of success in academics and the corporate world.”

A PhD will undoubtedly prepare you for a leadership role

A PhD may not be required during the initial phase of one’s corporate career, but experts say it will be useful when you reach a leadership position.

“PhD teaches you to search and research complex problems and find their solutions with experimentation, critical examination, and extensive analysis. Such skills are useful in developing innovative thought processes which help in the corporate as well as academic world,” said Sumit Sabharwal, CEO, TeamLease HRtech.

PhD holders get structured training to understand new concepts and technologies and how to apply them, experts said. “This gives them a definite edge over non-PhDs and hence are always valued at a premium comparatively,” said Kunal Girap, co-founder and director at executive search firm WalkWater Talent Advisors.

They can be broadly classified into two categories: PhD talent with strong business acumen – these are embedded in the business and hold CXO roles, and PhD talent with strong innovation and SME abilities – they would typically be heading a particular function / competency centre / global research labs, research and development, human resources, supply chain and operations.

Dr Subi Chaturvedi’s experience in the corporate world has shown that the skills she acquired during her PhD have been “incredibly beneficial” in her career progression.

“Moreover, pursuing a PhD can teach you discipline and enable you to develop interdisciplinary and mixed-method research techniques, which are highly valued in the corporate world,” said the Chief Corporate Affairs and Public Policy Officer at InMobi Group.

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