An urgent need for more PhD and post-doctoral graduates emerges from Tracer Study

Published On: 25 July 2023|

A comprehensive strategy to massively increase the number of PhD and post-doctoral graduates in South Africa, given the pivotal role they play in the country’s socio-economic development, needs to be given urgent attention.

This was the view of the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, at an event where he received the first national tracer study of doctoral graduates in South Africa, also known as the PhD Tracer Study.

“The correlation between the weighted number of PhDs – as in the number of PhDs per million of the population – and the country’s economic and innovation performance is well established globally,” he said.

Urging his team to find ways to increase the number of PhD and post-doctoral candidates, Dr Nzimande (right)said their single biggest ally in this is the President himself. “Increasing the number of PhDs has many positive outcomes in terms of our National System of Innovation and the quality of teaching staff in universities. This Tracer Study provides a knowledge base of what is happening.”

The Minister was speaking at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria to an august audience that included the Director General in the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), Dr Phil Mjwara; his Deputy responsible for Research and Development, Mr Imraan Patel; senior officials from the DSI and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET); representatives from Business, higher education institutions, labour, and civil society.

The Tracer Study

Dubbed a critical body of work, this study traces the work experience, demographic attributes, career paths and mobility of doctorate holders who graduated from South African universities between 2000 and 2018.

The event was aired on Business Day TV and moderated by its Head of Channel, Semeyi Zake. Introducing the Minister to the podium, he said the national imperative to grow the academic pipeline and increase the production of doctoral/PhD graduates in SA, was a policy priority.

The large amount of time and not insignificant cost of talent development raised questions regarding the return on investment for public funders of education. “While there has been a steep increase in the number of doctoral graduates, especially over the last decade, the capacity of the labour market to absorb them is unknown. It is important to know the impact of PhD graduates on the social economic environment.”

This first comprehensive study by government and higher education and research institutions, is different from previous studies in that earlier versions were limited in their focus and scope. They were also not systemic in that they did not zoom into certain sectors or disciplines, Dr Nzimande said.

He added that for this report, the DSI had built on the Water Research Commission’s (WRC) tracer study of water PhDs and assigned them project managers in this regard. The dissemination of key study findings and recommendations would stimulate a discussion with key stakeholders, all represented at the report launch, on the value of the PhD in society and in our economy.


In a conversation with Mr Lawrence Tabak, Acting Director of the National Institutes of Health in the US – who’d apologised for punishing South Africa for discovering Omicron which, he’d admitted, had saved many American lives – the Minister learnt that one US campus had 6 000 post-docs, but less than 2% from Africa.

“His open offer was that they were happy to fund more African graduates,” Dr Nzimande said. “I think we should benchmark ourselves, internationally, as the next step from this tracer study.”  He added: “Both DSI white papers on Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) and the Decadal Plan seek to expand the research enterprise by supporting more PhDs and building a strong pipeline of human capabilities.”

The tracing of graduates into their careers and occupations in different sectors is justified, given that the PhD is an apex qualification obtained after a huge investment – that could be up to 20 years or more – in learning, teaching, and supervisory support, mostly at State’s or taxpayers’ expense, he said.

SA as a training ground for Africa

Since South Africa had positioned itself as a PhD training destination, especially for the African continent, it was important to answer questions relating to the brain gain, drain or circulation of these highly skilled human resources and human capabilities.

Dr Nzimande told attendees: “We have been concerned about the supply and demand of PhDs in SA. While we see increasing numbers, absorbing these PhDs into the country’s economy has lagged behind.” The DSI annual Research & Development (R&D) survey, along with the annual STI indicators report it publishes, appears to show that the indicators are dependent on and influenced by the number of PhDs the country produces.

The data reflects the PhD absorption capacity by the private sector, the public research system, and higher education institutions. The Minister said: “To assess the socio-economic impact of our post-grad family, we have requested that the NRF establish a digital platform to track all the postgraduate students it has funded over the years.”

NRF-funded students

This digital platform should also be used to study the entire postgraduate human resources development pipeline of NRF-funded students. This tracer study, the Minister said, would be “usefully put onto the digital platform even though the national tracer study is not necessarily limited to NRF-funded students.

“As the department trusted with driving research and innovation, we pride ourselves in using well-researched data and evidence in making decisions about critical policy issues or interventions. This body of knowledge and the ensuing evidence will add to a repertoire of other studies commissioned under my ministry of both DSI and DHET.” He said some of the previous studies have provided evidence for policy decisions on postgraduate studies and researchers’ general support.

Studies commissioned by the DSI

The Minister drew attention to the following previous studies:

  • A 2015 study on the retention, conversion, and progression of postgraduate students sought to investigate the leaky postgraduate human resource development pipeline.
  • A 2018 postgraduate research and training engineering survey investigated low PhD graduation in engineering, particularly by women. Regarding PhD absorption, the Minister said he had been surprised to find that most PhDs were done in engineering, but employed in the financial/insurance/Fintech sector. “Why? I learnt that engineers make fundamental financial decisions, including about things like infrastructure. They are therefore sought after in the finance area.”
  • A 2017/8 study called The Silent Majority looked at who holds PhDs, who actively publishes, who seeks research funding among emerging researchers in the South African university system.
  • A 2019 DHET study on the recruitment, retention and progression of black South African academics, especially women.

To grow the number of PhDs, Dr Nzimande said he was working with the DG of DHET, Dr Nkosinathi Sishi, “to set aside R1-billion towards postgraduate studies from the National Skills Fund. The question is, where do we prioritise use of that money?”

He said that President Cyril Ramaphosa was considering supplementing this amount but added that the President would make his own announcement.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.