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Cultural Foundation survey finds that doctoral studies are useful even outside of an academic career
10.9.2019
People consider their doctoral studies to have been useful even if they never completed their thesis or if they did not go on to post-doctoral research. The survey by the Finnish Cultural Foundation also confirms impressions concerning the fragmented nature of doctoral thesis funding, and shows that completion of a doctoral degree leads to an increase in income that is greater among women than men.

The Finnish Cultural Foundation (SKR) began an enquiry into the perceived impact of its thesis funding in late 2018. Between 2005 and 2007, the Cultural Foundation gave out a total of EUR 24.5 million in doctoral thesis grants. The enquiry was carried out as a survey of the individuals who had applied for a doctoral thesis grant from the Foundation’s Central Fund in the aforementioned period.

The online survey was sent to 3,570 grant applicants, of whom 961 responded. Of the respondents, 251 had never received a grant from SKR. The survey was conducted by Optifluence Oy, with Petro Poutanen, Doctor of Social Sciences, as the head researcher. The results of the survey apply to the survey’s respondents and are not generalizable to the whole of Finland.

Doctoral studies are perceived as useful

Of the recipients of an SKR grant between 2005 and 2007, 69% said that their career progress was in line with their objectives, regardless of whether the thesis they were working on at the time of the grant had been completed or not. The corresponding figure for the respondents who had never received an SKR grant was 53%.

“Doctoral education provides skills in acquiring and refining information at such a high level that it is useful in practically any expert position.” – Respondent with doctoral degree

Of all the respondents to the survey, 18% had not completed their doctoral degrees. For male respondents the most typical reason for non-completion of their thesis was that they had obtained a more interesting job (33% of male respondents), whereas this was the reason for 21% of female respondents. Meanwhile, a significant proportion of women (22%) said that they were still working on their thesis (compared to 12% of men). The reason for non-completion of the thesis for 8% of these respondents was that their funding had run out.

According to the survey, applicants for thesis grants from SKR most typically end up holding research positions. Out of those who had received grants in 2005–2007, 69% were working as researchers, compared to 51% of those who had received no grants at all from SKR. Around one third of those who were working as researchers said that they were post-doc researchers, while another third had the seniority as researchers of adjunct professor or higher. The category of “other research tasks” applied to a few more women (16%) than men (10%), whereas more of the men (12% versus 6% of women) had achieved the level of professor.

According to the survey, even those who had not ended up in academia found their doctoral studies and thesis to have been useful. Especially those employed in project and administrative work found their doctoral studies to be significant in terms of their career, even if they had not completed their theses. The respondents considered the impact of their doctoral studies to lie especially in developing their competence and opening new job opportunities, as well as more generally in producing new scientific knowledge and know-how.

“I have obtained interesting job positions that support my research on the side [of my doctoral studies]. In this way I have been able to put my competence to use in the society.” – Respondent without doctoral degree

Perceived impact of doctoral thesis research. Scale: 1–5 (1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree). The figures are averages.
Perceived impact of doctoral thesis research. Scale: 1–5 (1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree). The figures are averages.

Completing a thesis improves income levels

Most of those who were not working as researchers were senior clerical personnel or managers. Of those working outside of research, 21% of men and 13% of women held management positions. More women (33%) than men (23%) worked for municipalities or local and regional authorities, while most men (39%) worked in private enterprises, compared to significantly fewer women (17%).

“The differences between employers is most likely due to the strong gender bias in the various academic fields of the respondents,” explains Olli Vallinheimo from the Finnish Cultural Foundation.

Completion of the doctoral thesis correlated to an improvement in the respondents’ income level. Based on the responses, the impact on income level was greater among women than men. Of those with a doctoral degree, 74% of men and 63% of women had gross incomes of EUR 3,500 per month or higher. The corresponding proportions for those without doctoral degrees were 59% of men and 40% of women. One third of men and one fifth of women with a doctoral degree reached the EUR 5,000+ income bracket.

There were also significant differences between academic fields. In the humanities, only one in ten respondents with thesis studies made over EUR 5,000 per month, compared to one in three for science and medicine.

Income distribution (%) across the four income brackets (gross income) for female and male respondents with and without doctoral degrees.
Income distribution (%) across the 4 income brackets (gross) for female and male respondents with and without doctoral degrees.

Thesis funding is fragmented

The funding for the doctoral studies of the respondents had almost invariably come from diverse sources. The responses indicate that most doctoral students would wish for a longer-term, more permanent funding model, preferably based on a salary and an employment contract, in which the thesis researcher could remain close to or a part of the academic community. However, most respondents agreed that a grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation represented a significant merit for a researcher.

“I feel that working in academia is still better done on the university’s payroll, in terms of both integration into the university and the researcher’s working conditions. […] For my part, the funding from SKR allowed for research periods without being tied to administrative duties.” – Respondent

“This survey confirms previous impressions of the fragmentary nature of thesis funding, and for its part it backs the Cultural Foundation’s decision to focus on grants with a longer duration in the future,” says SKR’s Secretary General Antti Arjava.

The reference group for the responses consists of persons who worked on their theses in projects funded by the Academy of Finland, with an employment contract lasting six months or longer, in the same period of time. There were only slight differences in the standards of the publications made by the researchers financed by the Cultural Foundation and the Academy.

Using a comparative method to examine the impact of the researchers’ publications on a field-specific basis, no significant differences could be found between the publications of the researchers financed by the Cultural Foundation and the Academy. However, based on the comparative data and measured by the number or publications and the number of references, SKR can be said to have funded more successful researchers than the Academy in medicine, technology and natural science, while the opposite is true in the fields of social science, education and humanities.

The full research report is available on request from Olli Vallinheimo, coordinator.

Additional information
SKR
Olli
Vallinheimo
Coordinator
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Optifluence Oy