Impact Blog

Graduate Outcomes – just how employable are research graduates?

September 2021
Dr Narelle Tunstall
Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact


The employment outcomes of research graduates was not something I thought about before I started my own PhD, but it’s certainly something I become much more interested in about 3 years into my degree!

Luckily, I found that my PhD made me quite employable. But is that the experience of most other postgraduate research graduates? This is something that is monitored regularly, so it’s not a hard question to answer…

The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) is a suite of government endorsed surveys for higher education, that look at the student life cycle from commencement to employment. This includes the Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS), the Graduate Outcomes Survey – Longitudinal (GOS-L), and the Employee Satisfaction Survey (ESS) for all graduates (undergraduate, postgraduate coursework and postgraduate research graduates).

The 2021 data for the GOS-L was released last week and the data tells a consistent story.

Postgraduate research graduates are highly employable in both the short and medium term.


The GOS and the GOS-L

The GOS is completed by graduates of Australian higher education institutions approximately four to six months after finishing their studies. The GOS measures short-term employment outcomes including skills utilisation, further study activities, and graduate satisfaction.

Additionally, the Graduate Outcomes Survey – Longitudinal (GOS-L) measures the medium-term outcomes of higher education graduates based on a cohort analysis of graduates who responded to the Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) 3 years earlier. The 2021 GOS-L National Report examines short-term and medium-term labour market outcomes (rates of full-time employment, overall employment, labour force participation and median full-time salaries), as well as skills utilisation and further study outcomes of graduates who responded to the GOS in 2018.

It must be noted that the reporting of graduate labour market outcomes focuses on domestic graduates only due to challenges in tracking labour market outcomes of international graduates.


What are the short and medium-term employment outcomes of research graduates?

In 2018, 82.5% of postgraduate research graduates were in full-time employment four to six months after completion, compared with only 74.3% who had completed undergraduate qualifications and 86.6% who had completed postgraduate coursework qualifications.

Three years later in 2021, the gap in full-time employment rates between these groups of graduates narrowed with 88.9% of undergraduates and 90.3% of postgraduate research graduates in full-time employment compared with 93.3% of postgraduate coursework graduates.

But if we look at all forms of employment (including part-time etc), the proportion of postgraduate research graduates in (any) employment in 2018, four to six months after completing their course, was higher at 91.9% and three years later this had increased slightly again, to 92.4%.

The labour force participation rate of postgraduate research graduates shortly after course completion was 94.6% which was slightly lower in the medium-term at 93.0%.

Having a research degree generally offers very good employment outcomes it would seem.

But what about salary?

Does having a postgraduate research degree result in higher income?


What about salary outcomes?

In addition to improved employment outcomes, higher level qualifications generally lead to improved salary outcomes. The GOS-L data shows that the median salary of undergraduates employed full-time in 2020 was $64,700 per year while for postgraduate coursework graduates it was $87,400 and for postgraduate research graduates it was $93,000.

The growth in salaries for postgraduate research graduates is more interesting. Three years out the median salary level among postgraduate research graduates in full-time employment increased from $90,000 to $102,000 (13.3%). This is quite a bit lower than the growth in postgraduate coursework graduate salaries (19.6%) and much lower than growth in undergraduate salaries (24.0%).

Some good news for the gender pay gap though? The gender gap in postgraduate research graduate salaries was $2,000 or 2.2% in 2018 four to six months after graduation. However, three years later in 2021, median full-time female postgraduate research graduate salaries were $102,000, being $400 higher than for males at $101,600.

I must say that surprised me. For postgraduate coursework the pay gaps are 13% and 13.6% (more for males) respectively across 2018 and 2021.

The gender gap in postgraduate coursework graduate salaries is likely due to a range of factors such as occupation level, age, experience, personal factors and possible inequalities within workplaces. And this gender gap in salaries persists across all study areas (in particular, in Medicine, Business and management, Health services and support and Science and mathematics), with gender pay gaps in excess of 15% three years after course completion.

Speaking of study areas, does a postgraduate research degree in one field mean you’re more likely to be employed than someone in another field?


Does study area impact graduate outcomes?

After completing an undergraduate degree, graduates from more vocationally oriented programs such as Medicine do tend to have higher rates of full-time employment in the short-term than more generalist study areas such as Science and mathematics, and Humanities, culture and social sciences. However, this gap reduces over time. This trend in employment outcomes holds true for postgraduate research graduates, so it appears the area of your research degree doesn’t impact your employment outcomes.

One might hazard a guess that it’s the skills learnt not the content of your research degree that makes all the difference (see one of our previous blogs about transferrable skills here).

And conveniently, the QILT looks at employers’ satisfaction with graduate skills too.


Employer satisfaction

In a different survey, the QILT Employer Satisfaction Survey (ESS), data shows employers are highly satisfied with the overall quality of graduates from Australia’s higher education system, but employers are most satisfied with postgraduate research graduates.

Overall satisfaction is 89.6% for postgraduate research graduates compared with 82.7 % for postgraduate coursework graduates and 85.4% for undergraduates in the most recent 2020 data.

When broken down into five graduate attribute domains or scales, postgraduate research graduates outperformed all other graduates on all scales, except for one. The five domains are:

  • foundation skills (general literacy, numeracy and communication skills and the ability to investigate and integrate knowledge),
  • adaptive skills (the ability to adapt and apply skills/knowledge and work independently),
  • collaborative skills (teamwork and interpersonal skills),
  • technical skills (application of professional and technical knowledge and standards) and
  • employability skills (the ability to perform and innovate in the workplace).

Postgraduate research graduates were (very slightly) lower in collaborative skills than undergraduates but remained higher than coursework graduates.

This is just a brief snapshot of the latest data, for more information and caveats on the data collected, please visit the QILT.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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