Global Competition for (New Kids of) PhDs Heats Up

May, 2012

Wanda Hennig in University World News Global Edition Issue 221

“’Baby boomers’ are retiring at a disproportional rate compared to the number of new PhDs entering the university system. And global competition for the best and brightest will invariably escalate.

Between 2000 and 2010, OECD universities lost 20% to 30% of their academics.

In Australia, Austria, France, Germany, the UK, The Netherlands and Sweden, 40% of academics are currently aged 55 or older. In the UK, 19,000 academics will be needed by 2020. Canada needs to recruit 3,000 academics per year for the next 10 years.

‘We are an interconnected world and the competition for the best and brightest might make it tempting to poach academic staff from developing countries to fill the gaps,’ [said Asa Olsson, manager of the OECD’s programme on Innovation, Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, or IHERD.]

‘And competition for talent will not only be fuelled by demographics but also by the apparent lack of interest in an academic career, at least in OECD countries, on the part of many young people, including PhD graduates.’”


For some time now, we at Harris Search Associates have monitored the growth in demand for researchers in business and industry by areas of the world and in relation to the supply of well-prepared talent available in each region. Our sense is that opportunities for PhD-prepared researchers in non-academic settings regularly outstrip “local” supply. As a result, companies are required to transfer researchers from outside the region (an expensive requirement) and to consider carefully site selection for research facilities based at least part on the prospect of being able to hire locally the talent needed in those facilities.

In addition, the increasingly interdisciplinary character of both academic and non-academic research poses challenges for universities in regions of the world where academic disciplines create and maintain powerful barriers to researchers who need to be able to work with colleagues in other fields within and outside their institutions and firms. American research universities enjoy something of an edge in this area, as most federal funding agencies and foundations that underwrite research have been requiring interdisciplinary approaches for more than a decade now.

Still, the lesson seems clear: it IS a smaller world after all, especially when it comes to the competition for research talent.


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