Addressing unemployed PhD graduates in Malaysia

By reducing brain drain and retaining PhD scholars, we can foster creation of more scientific outputs within the country 

FROM the decision to pursue and then successfully complete a PhD is a challenging journey as it requires tremendous passion and interest in research, along with the willingness to make significant sacrifices in various aspects of life, including financial stability, career advancement, personal relationships, and mental and physical wellbeing. 

In order to overcome all these challenges and to complete the PhD, PhD graduates are well-versed in problem-solving, ranging from their research fields/expertise to their daily life. A recent report showed the number of PhD graduates in Malaysia increased from 1,247 in 2010 to 4,560 in 2021. 

However, obtaining a PhD qualification does not guarantee a promising career future. This is especially true in Malaysia, which has experienced a concerning rise in the unemployment rate among PhD holders under the age of 35 as the unemployment rate has surged from 7% in 2010 to 16% in 2021. 

The ongoing global economic recession and the “Tech Layoff Cycle” may further amplify the challenges faced by PhD graduates, contributing to a higher unemployment rate in Malaysia. Recognising the current macroeconomic situation, we have explored other potential factors contributing to the rising trend of unemployed PhD graduates in Malaysia. 

Reason 1: Surge in the number of PhD holders with MyBrain15 Programme. During the 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP), the MyBrain15 sponsorship programme was launched to support postgraduate studies and aimed to produce 60,000 PhD holders among Malaysian citizens. This initiative had resulted in a substantial surge in the enrolment of students pursuing postgraduate studies, both at the master’s and PhD levels. 

These students were motivated by the opportunity to apply their scholarly minds and contribute to solving research questions aligned with their interests. As a result, there has been a surge in the number of PhD holders in Malaysia. 

Reason 2: Limited academic positions in Malaysia. The scarcity of academic positions leaves many PhD graduates struggling to find full-time positions such as research officers, research fellows, research associates and research scientists, in institutes of higher learning or research institutes. 

As a result, they often end up working as contract-based research assistants or postdoctoral fellows for an extended period, if they are determined to pursue a career in academia. However, choosing to remain as a research assistant or postdoctoral fellow for an extended period often requires sacrificing career advancement opportunities and financial stability. 

Reason 3: Malaysia’s limited investment capital compared to regional leaders. In 2019, South Korea invested 4.55% of their gross expenditure on research and development (GERD), equivalent to approximately RM300 billion. In contrast, Malaysia’s GERD investment is only 1.44%, which is less than RM20 billion. 

The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) president Datuk Dr Syed Hussain Syed Husman recently commented on the difficulty of hiring postgraduates due to the lack of capital. This difference in investment hampers the ability of PhD graduates in Malaysia to secure lucrative salaries and research budgets, hindering their capacity to conduct impactful research or establish technology-intensive start-up companies. 

Reason 4: The middle-income trap in Malaysia undermines the value of PhD holders. The middle-income trap fosters an expectation within the Malaysian industry ecosystem to keep labour costs as low as possible within legal boundaries. 

As a result, the industry may not fully recognise the added value of PhD holders with exceptional problem-solving skills and might prioritise candidates with lower salary expectations. This negative feedback loop adversely affects the retention of high-tech talent and ecosystem development, as the industry struggles to meet the higher salary expectations of PhD graduates. Consequently, this contributes to either underemployment or more severely the rising unemployment rate among PhD holders. 

To tackle this challenging situation of PhD unemployment issues, we propose the following recommendations for the current administration and PhD graduates: 

Proposal 1: Government should enhance the growth of high-tech industries. The Malaysian government has already made substantial investments in research infrastructure and frameworks through initiatives like the Academy Science Malaysia MYSTIE 10-10 framework, Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) and Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology & Innovation (MRANTI). 

By further improving coordination and execution of the MYSTIE 10-10 strategic framework, these efforts can fuel the expansion of high-tech industries, generating more job opportunities in all pinpointed sectors. This would also provide avenues for PhD graduates to actively contribute to Malaysia’s nation-building endeavours. 

Proposal 2: Foster partnerships and collaboration with international industries. Implementing improved policies to attract diverse high-tech industries to invest and operate in Malaysia would drive the growth of high-tech jobs. By establishing partnerships and collaborations between internationally renowned high-tech companies and universities, PhD students would have the opportunity to apply their problem-solving skills in real-world settings and gain exposure to global industry standards. 

This exposure would bridge the gap between PhD students’ expectations and the practicalities and research standards of the industry, making them more competitive in the job market. Moreover, exposure to international industries could inspire PhD students to explore entrepreneurship and contribute innovative ideas globally. 

Proposal 3: Establish postgraduate internships. Employers should consider offering specialised internship positions specifically designed for PhD graduates to bridge the gap they often face. PhD graduates, especially those who remain as full-time students from an undergraduate degree until a PhD graduate, often sacrifice time and career advancement opportunities for their research, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to peers who entered the workforce earlier and gained corporate and societal skills. 

Implementing a postgraduate internship programme would be highly beneficial, as it would provide PhD graduates with valuable training and development opportunities to bridge the divide between their academic knowledge and practical skills. This initiative not only enables employers to scout for talent, but also helps to train PhD graduates and prepare them for the demands of the workplace. 

Proposal 4: Explore alternative career paths. At every career junction, new and unexpected opportunities arise. Therefore, PhD holders who are currently seeking employment should be encouraged to explore paths beyond their comfort zone. By embracing creativity and leveraging their problem-solving strengths in diverse industrial settings, they may uncover more rewarding benefits and brighter prospects for the future. 

Additionally, the skills, ideas and findings derived from their PhD research journey can serve as a foundation or catalyst for their own potential start-up. Taking advantage of the growing start-up schemes available, PhD holders may find an unconventional path towards becoming successful entrepreneurs. 

Conclusion: Economy Minister Rafizi Ramli recently stated: “Mastering technology and innovation is a game changer for our society, enabling broader access to high-quality solutions at lower costs. It also boosts our economy, propelling us towards higher value-added products, processes and jobs.” 

Addressing the unemployment situation among PhD graduates in Malaysia presents a significant opportunity to support the government’s vision. By effectively reducing brain drain and retaining highly trained technology and innovation PhD scholars, we can foster the creation of more scientific outputs within Malaysia, thereby boosting the country’s economic growth and development. This effort would also contribute to overcoming the middle-income trap and provide support for ongoing nation-building initiatives. — pic MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

  • Dr Low Ley Hian is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Centre, Dr Goh Bey Hing is an associate professor at Monash University Malaysia and Dr Lee Tze Yan is a senior lecturer at Perdana University. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition