Verona Burgess: is a PhD worth doing for a career in the public service?

PhD students have notorious dropout rates and mental health risks, but is it worth it for a career in the public service? Verona Burgess on how far a doctorate gets you, and where you might end up.

Most people who have been through a PhD probably agree on two things: it is only worth the pain and suffering if you feel passionate about the topic and have good supervision; and unless you are employed in the same field – and even then – you are unlikely to use your thesis in your subsequent career.

What you will use, if you are lucky, are the skills honed along the way, including the ability to conduct high-level, methodical research and analysis; the ability to sustain an original piece of gruelling work over a long time, largely on your own; the ability to question and keep looking for answers; and the ability to defend your own reasoning and conclusions in the face of rigorous and sometimes vicious criticism.

But given the proliferation of public administration-specific short courses, graduate certificates, diplomas and degrees, is a PhD worth doing if you are going to become a public servant? There are many career pathways, but the numbers suggest there may still be an intrinsic value in achieving a doctorate.

An elite few

Four of the seven most recent secretaries of Prime Minister and Cabinet, for example, hold PhDs (Mike Keating, Peter Shergold, Ian Watt and Martin Parkinson).

Of the 152,095 people employed under the Public Service Act 1999 at June 30, there were 2657, or 1.7%, who held PhDs (1711 men and 946 women), according to the Australian Public Service Commission’s APS Statistical Bulletin 2016-17.

There’s no information about what they studied, but it is unlikely that those in science agencies wrote a thesis on, say, medieval Latin – although you never know. One former Defence secretary, Allan Hawke, wrote a PhD – not, as rumoured, on the sex lives of grasshoppers, but on colour pattern inheritance in the Australian Plague Locust.1 Not exactly a hot topic for Defence, although with miniature drone warfare these days, who knows?

Of the graduate intake in 2016-17 of 1362 (0.89% of all staff), just seven (0.51% of the cohort) held PhDs – five men and two women.

But it seems you are more likely to progress if you do have one –  or sneak into the APS at a higher level.

Of 73,221 staff from APS6 to Senior Executive Service Band 3, there were 2454 people who held PhDs, or 3.35%. So, of the 2657 PhDs in the APS, only 203 (7.6%) were below APS6.

Of 33,319 staff at APS6 (21.9% of all staff) 626 held PhDs (360 men and 266 women) or 1.87% of APS6.  That’s the level where policy careers start to kick off.

In the two executive levels – which retired Environment secretary Dr Gordon de Brouwer called ‘the heart of public sector management’ ­–  the percentages change.

At EL1, of a cohort of 25,571 (16.81% of all staff), 849 held PhDs; 545 men and 304 women, or 3.32% of EL1s.

At EL2 the cohort was 11,665 (7.66% of all staff). Of them, 851 held PhDs (621 men, 230 women), so a big jump to 7.29% of EL2s. That’s also the largest number of PhDs at any level. Take a bow, EL2s, you are the brains of the outfit – but you knew that already.

At SES1 things took a downturn. Of 1982 staff (1.3% of total APS) just 77, or 3.88% of the cohort, held PhDs.

But at SES2 the PhD came into its own again. Of 560 (0.37% of all APS) 42 people (7.5%) held PhDs – 27 men, 15 women.

Finally, at SES3 or deputy secretary equivalent, of 124 (0.08 % of the APS) nine or 7.25% held PhDs (seven men, two women).

The gender situation took a few twists and turns. At APS 6, 42.5% of PhDs were held by women; at EL1, this fell to 36%; and dropped again at EL2 to 27%. At SES1 they rose to 39%, but at SES 2 they slid to 36% and down to 22% of SES3.

Where to hang your doctorate

On a cheerier note, where are most of the good doctors employed? Not always where you might think. The elite Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for example, has 88 but just 2.3% of its staff.

Rounding up the percentages, of the portfolio departments, Industry scores highest at 232 PhDs out of 4326 staff, or 5% (including Geoscience Australia). Health has 232 out of 4727, or 4%. Defence, as you’d expect with its science, signals and geospatial groups, has most in sheer numbers (729 out of 18,390 staff) but also 4%. Treasury and Agriculture have 3% each.

The percentages tend to be higher in specialist agencies, as you’d expect. For example, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority has 45 PhDs out of 217 staff, or 21% – or at least it did before Barnaby Joyce forced the move to Armidale. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Authority has 24 of 147 staff (16%). The Bureau of Meteorology has 242 of 1687 (14%); the Murray-Darling Basin Authority 43 of 308 (also 14%); the small but perfectly formed Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research six of 60 (10%); Safe Work Australia 10 of 101 (10%); the Productivity Commission 12 of 167 (7%); and the anti-money laundering AUSTRAC 16 of 345 (5%).

However, the APSC reported ‘no data’ for a nearly half (49%) of all staff. So there may be a few more unreported doctorates lurking out there.

Top photo supplied by University of Melbourne.

1. Hawke, A D. 1974. Genetic studies of polymorphism in laboratory and natural populations of the Australian plague locust, Chortoicetes terminifera. Ph.D. Thesis, Australian National University.

  • And some of us are just starting our PhD journey as our public service careers wind down! I find the capabilities I’ve developed over many years as a public servant (mostly at EL level) are a very good input to PhD work. For me, this is the right time to do a PhD, I couldn’t have been bothered in my 20s and 30s!!

    • Paul Burton

      Hi Susan,
      I think it would be much more sensible to follow your path and use the opportunity of a PhD to reflect critically on the experiences of a working life…in the public service or wherever.

  • Paul Burton

    Hi Verona,
    A very interesting piece. In my view there are few professions beyond the academy where a PhD is an essential entry requirement and so the question: should I do a PhD if I don’t want to become an academic, is a tricky one. In some cases it won’t harm your employment prospects, but your assessment of the opportunity cost is probably the most signficant consideration. Interest and passion in your chosen topic is also important, especially when you (almost inevitably) hit your dark night of the soul moment.
    I’d be interested in data on ‘notorious’ drop out rates. I know very few people who have enrolled in a PhD and then un-enrolled, but there are many more who take longer than expected to complete, especially those trying to do it on a part time basis. And I have rarely come across cases where a submitted PhD thesis is not, eventually, accepted and the degree conferred.

  • Verona, you wrote that 1.7% of public servants had PhDs,
    according to the APS Statistical Bulletin 2016-17. However, the APS doesn’t collect statistics on numbers of PHDs, just “Doctorates”. There are two types of doctorate offered by Australian universities: a research doctorate (“PHD”) and a professional doctorate (“Doctor of …”). There are a few research jobs in the APS for which a PHD would be a suitable qualification, but most APS jobs, even policy ones, are more practical for which a professional doctorate would be more relevant. Also any doctorate requires a depth of experience and so this is not something for starting a career.

  • VB

    Hi all

    Thanks for your thoughtful observations. I probably should have said ‘PhD and other doctorates” but I don’t want to start a fight between those who did their doctorates by thesis (whether a PhD or DLitt or whatever) and those mostly by course work … also the numbers obviously include those who did doctorates at overseas universities, such as Martin Parkinson, so it wasn’t intended as a dissection of the kinds of doctorates, more the wider point about the (broadly) top level of tertiary education. VB