Startling Survey findings: SA is graduating fewer doctoral candidates

Published On: 25 July 2023|

The country is simply not producing enough PhD graduates, and, by implication, post-doctoral fellows (post-docs). This was one of the crucial findings of a Tracer Survey that tracked the work experience, demographic attributes, career paths, and mobility of PhD graduates and post-docs who graduated from South African universities between 2000 and 2018.

Lead researcher, Professor Johann Mouton (right), Director in the Centre for Excellence for Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP), based at Stellenbosch University, concluded: “In my estimate, unless there are serious interventions from government and the private sector to allocate funding to attract more PhDs – or masters students to enrol for PhDs – we will not get to the targeted 5 000 postgraduates by 2030 on the current forecasting models.”

He was speaking virtually at the launch of the first national tracer study report on doctoral graduates in South Africa, known as the PhD Tracer Study Report, to the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande. Held at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria, the event was hosted by and aired on Business Day TV.

As she handed over the final report to the Minister, Dr Jennifer Molwantwa (right, below), CEO of the Water Research Commission (WRC), narrated how they came to partner with the DSI on the study and gave some context to the current findings.

The report, she said, was conducted from a study the WRC initiated in 2000, focused on tracing water-focused PhDs. “There were DSI team members present during the focus group where we learned there is a high demand for Water PhDs. We found that 66% of the PhDs traced at that time were in South Africa while 92% were elsewhere in Africa. The conclusion was that 90% of jobs related to water and sanitation do require and can benefit from PhD graduates.”

These results led to the DSI colleagues asking how these findings might relate to PhDs across other sectors. It was then decided that a tracer study would be conducted, managed by the WRC, and executed by Stellenbosch University under the leadership of Professor Mouton and his team.


Over 29000 PhD candidates graduated in the last 10-12 years (the period of the study). However, only 15 000 were traced, of whom 6 500 agreed to participate in the survey. A total of 117 in-depth interviews took place — which the WRC CEO said provided adequate qualitative data.

Dr Molwantwa and Professor Mouton outlined the headline findings:

  1. 61% of the respondents studied and completed their PhDs part-time, or while engaged in some employment. She said: “This is encouraging as they were doing strategic and operational work within society when they identified challenges. They took this as an opportunity to contribute to new knowledge and to investigate and find out how to solve these problems.”
  2. Most frequently mentioned was that PhDs were self-funded. A large percentage of students began their studies after the age of 34 and were in employment when they began studying. “The majority self-funded and had no financial support. Our policy position needs to be looked at,” Dr Molwantwa said.
  3. Nearly two-thirds of respondents were employed in the higher education sector. “This indicates the higher education sector is in the hands of knowledge generators,” Dr Molwantwa said.

Expanding on the need for more PhDs and post-docs for higher education, Professor Mouton said: “Why is that important? When we look at the PhD students in the system (that has stayed the same for the last 20 years) – 60% of them study while they work and about two-thirds of them are academics.

“About 40% of all PhD candidates who are enrolled at this time are academics at South African universities. But, only about half of all academics have PhDs.  It’s all well and good to talk about the absorptive capacity of the world of work, and where our graduates will go.

“When you have a PhD, you are very employable. But the first priority is to generate and produce enough PhDs to staff the universities. The two main functions of universities are to produce high-level skills for the whole of society and economy including academia. We need enough PhDs to train the next generation of students.

“Secondly, the university’s job is to produce knowledge for the knowledge economy and knowledge society.”

Researchers in laboratory

He asked why South Africa was producing fewer graduates and answered: “There is simply not enough money in the system when we compare ourselves to Scandinavian countries, the USA, etc., where PhD students are appointed as junior lecturers and paid a salary to study full-time. They finish within 3 years.

Conversely, “the average PhD student in South Africa is typically an academic, a senior lecturer, studying part-time because he or she has to teach and supervise. They take five or six years to complete. There is a knock-on effect.

“The Minister wants to allocate R1-billion to add to the funding of doctoral and post-doctoral studies. I fully support that. We have to start at the beginning of the pipeline and support more masters and more PhD students, that includes academics. Programmes like Future Professors which are key under the University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP) are still, to my mind, underfunded and should be expanded.”

  1. About 20% of the respondents received post-doctoral fellowships, which Dr Molwantwa said was “something not generally funded or supported in South Africa that needs more focus. We have benefitted significantly from the net inward flow of doctoral students and fellowships. We need to see this as an investment; fund these fellowships so they can go into the world and learn new ways and innovation and bring that back home.”
  2. 98% of graduates were employable; 2% did not find employment in the first year of completing their doctorate. Dr Molwantwa said: “This indicates a critical skill that can be absorbed. Often graduates did not find employment in their specific field. Their agility enabled them to be flexible. In the private sector, critical thinking and new knowledge are embraced. In our public sector, policy review and updates are slow.”

Professor Mouton, referring to the research done within the tracer report, said: “A close look at our report shows that the absorptive capacity of our PhD graduates is not as positive as we would like it to be. On one hand, we are saying only 2% of PhD students couldn’t find employment after they graduated within a year because the majority of them are already employed.

“Where do they go? First of all, there is a sizeable proportion – 20% of them – where their only recourse is to get a post-doctoral fellowship because they can’t get a permanent position at universities because there are not sufficient vacancies.  Then we have serial post-docs who because they can’t find employment, go on to obtain three or even four post-doctoral degrees. The university system cannot absorb its own PhD graduates.

“Finally, if you look at the business sector, in the early 2000s – the first five years after graduation – about 15% of PhD students came from the Business Sector. That had declined to 12% by 2018 which means that there are fewer students graduating that come from business and go back to business. This is not surprising – the business expenditure in R&D in this country has declined significantly over the last 12/15 years. There has not been enough investment in the private sector in R&D where those graduates can get positions.”

Report Recommendations

Dr Molwantwa told the Minister, to whom she had just handed over the report:

  1. We believe tracer studies – not only around PhDs and post-docs – need to be done regularly; to track and review where we are at. We need more research into the financing of post-doctoral studies. Most funding provision is limited to those under 35, which disregards the critical mass of employed people who see challenges and seek to find solutions.
  2. How are changes in the nature of work affecting the range of skills doctoral graduates should have? Role players – universities, the DSI, the NRF, and the Council on Higher Education – should collectively investigate how the position and status of post-docs can be strengthened.
  3. The absorptive capacity of the economic knowledge sector around post-doctorate graduates needs examination. “The irony is when post-grads (from Africa) complete their studies they need to apply for a work permit that costs R3000 while the government has invested over half a million rand in educating them. We need to understand that investment begins as post-graduate studies commence.”

Dr Molwantwa said: “I think that the work ethic, critical thinking, the ability to question issues, to adapt them can be achieved through the use of post-doctoral graduates. The WRC strategy is grounded on the premise that PhD and post-grads are at the crux of water and sanitation challenges in SA as well as in human capacity and capability. “It’s one of the key component outcomes of the WRC strategy and a primary lever for our contribution to the national transformation and redress project. Just in the last financial year we reported 128 PhDs as well as 14 post-doctoral fellows who have been supported by the WRC.”

Concluding his presentation, Professor Mouton said: “Before we talk about the relationship between PhDs and the World of Work, we need to have enough PhDs in the system. The national development plan has set a target that 70% of all staff at universities should have a PhD by 2030, when we should have about 5 000 PhDs graduating.

“When we did this report two years ago, we were looking at data up to 2019. Over the past two years, we’ve seen a slowing in the growth of the number of doctoral graduates every year. This urgently needs to be addressed.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa. 

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