Overqualified? Why South Africa's PhD students may struggle to find employment

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"In order to ensure that I would be one the employable people I wanted to further my studies up to a PhD."
"In order to ensure that I would be one the employable people I wanted to further my studies up to a PhD."
  • A South African study found that there was a growing gap between the number of PhD graduates and the number who find employment
  • A PhD is the highest academic degree awarded and this sometimes causes employers to view PhD graduates as overqualified
  • The science field is flooded with doctorates, making it harder for science graduates to compete


Parents often encourage their children to study further, because of the assumption that the higher the qualification they achieve, the better their prospects for employment and higher pay.

In 2015, a South African study found that there was a growing gap between the number of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) graduates and the number who find employment. 

The study, which looked at the employability of graduates in South Africa, indicated that of the 1800 PhD candidates graduating every year, half of them had experienced difficulties finding employment.

According to the study, this is because PhD graduates face discriminatory factors when applying for work. 

In an interview, Dr Amaleya Goneos-Malka (who was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the time of the study) said that due to certain companies' hierarchical structures, employers may be faced with an inferiority complex when hiring graduates with a higher level of education than themselves. 

For this reason, science graduates may have to face the same frustration: the science field is difficult to penetrate without a substantial education or experience to set you apart, and yet the word "overqualification" is slung around in employment offices, leaving educated youth between a rock and a hard place.

Also read: Want to send your child to study abroad? This is where you should start

Overqualification is the state of being educated beyond what is required by an employer for a position within the business.

The issue that this presents for the business is that overqualified candidates may expect higher salaries or become bored with the level of work they're being asked to do, and then leave. 

However, this has become a frustrating topic for many PhD students because the science market is flooded with PhDs, and though a PhD is the highest academic degree awarded, this sometimes presents new challenges for entrants into the job market. 

To find out if this is still true, News24 spoke to three PhD candidates to understand their perspectives of the relationship between obtaining education and employability in current South Africa.

'The international science industry is littered with doctorates' 

Andile Ncube* is one of the many doctoral candidates who are doing all that they can to secure their future, and yet he says his future doesn't feel secure. 

After nine years of studying in the field of chemical biology, Ncube says that people often remark on how much he must love studying to pursue it for so long.

And though he has fallen in love with the field, he admits that to achieve his dreams of working abroad, he has to obtain a PhD to compete for positions. 

"The international science community is littered with doctorates and therefore may require a scientist to also have a PhD, to compete for positions," says Ncube.

Ncube believes that the concept of overqualification is unfounded. 

"I don't understand how [overqualification] is possible. If I apply for the job, it means I'm willing to do the job. It's not for the potential employer to determine if the job is good enough for me or not," explains Ncube.

'It is not easy to break into the industry'

PhD candidate Anathi Nkayi shares that one of her motivations for pursuing a doctoral degree is that she is aware of the unemployment rate in South Africa and notes that in the science field, "it is not easy to break into the industry with just a BSc degree".

Nkayi has been studying for almost 15 years, starting with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Science and is now pursuing her PhD in chemical biology focusing on cancer immunotherapy. 

"We stay in a country that has one the highest unemployment rates, especially with the field that I am in," says Nkayi. "So in order to ensure that I would be one of the employable people I wanted to further my studies up to a PhD."

Nkayi also says that she does not believe in overqualification. Much like Ncube, Nkayi agrees that experience matters, but that a PhD is an asset, not a liability.

"When applying for jobs, the requirements are always about having a Master's or PhD with two or three years of experience and what I have grown to learn is that doing a Master's or a PhD research project for two to three years can be viewed as experience, depending on the job that one is applying for," she explained.

Also see: Is the cost of an overseas education really worth it?

'I don't have much experience'

Another doctoral candidate to echo employment concerns is Sibongiseni Poswayo, who is pursuing her PhD in clinical sciences and immunology.

After having studied for nine years now, Poswayo is sure that it was her love of the sciences that led her to pursue this degree stream, encouraged by her parents and persuaded by the thought of "helping the human population by trying to understand how the immune system works".

However, soon to be faced with the South African job market, Poswayo says that experience may still be a concern after all her years of studying without working. 

"I might be worried that I don't have much experience when the time finally comes and I have to job hunt," she admits.

"When people tell me I'll be overqualified and no one will want to hire me after I'm done studying, I usually explain that yes, for certain jobs I'm overqualified, but for me to continue doing research - I'm on the right path," explains Poswayo.

'The greatest achievement ever' 

Still, these three doctoral candidates try to remain optimistic for their success, hoping that employers and academics can see the value offered by their education. 

"Just completing this degree will be the greatest achievement ever," says Nkayi. 

"My family has shown support throughout my studies and vowed to support me until I wear the red gown," says Ncube.

"I wouldn't pick any other field," says Nkayi, hoping to motivate people to push their boundaries and see what studying up to a PhD level would do for them.

*Name changed by request

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