So, you have a PhD in Chemistry but you are still unemployed…

It is the kind of social media posting that irritates: “My brother has a PhD in Chemistry and he is unemployed.”

Professor Jonathan Jansen.

I am not sure why people post this kind of information but I have a hunch. A PhD graduate is supposed to have a job. If not, there must be some unfairness in the system, such as discrimination. This is evidence that there is no pay-off to advanced degrees.

So to the person who posted this information on Twitter, I would like to share a few home truths with you.

First of all, graduate unemployment in South Africa is strikingly low.

Where unemployment in general runs at more than 25%, that figure is less than 5% for graduates.

That is good news in any economy.

There must be other reasons for your brother’s predicament.

There are credible research sources that show over and over again that the more formal education you achieve, the more likely you are to get a job; and the more you study, and gain qualifications, the better your earnings.

Those are the facts and they affirm the value of continuing education in an economy demanding high skills for which a failing school system struggles to provide a reliable and strong pipeline of graduates.

What they might not have told your brother is that where you obtain your PhD could very well explain why you do not find a job.

In other words, the market screens degrees based on whether you achieved that qualification at the University of Zululand or the University of Cape Town.

Nobody wants to deal with this elephant in the lecture room but we should. Where you study matters as much as what you study.

Sometimes those differences are real, based on institutional resources, staff qualifications and academic reputation, and sometimes they are perceived.

There is no reason why a PhD student at UZ would not be studying under a leader in the field of Chemistry.

Regardless of where you study, if your brother has a PhD and little else in terms of job skills, I am sorry to inform you that he will remain unemployed.

A PhD who lacks personal confidence, cannot speak authoritatively in public, and lacks advanced analytical skills will not find a job outside of MacDonald’s or Burger King. That is a fact.

The graduate without facility in a range of taken-for-granted computer skills – running spreadsheets and data analysis – is useless in a modern and competitive economy.

Unless your PhD brother can solve problem sets across domains – that is, not only in Chemistry – the degree means nothing. As any university counsellor worth her salt would have told him, the degree is not enough.

There is the additional truth that PhDs are not always employed within the specialisation of their training; in your brother’s case, Chemistry.

This is actually good news, for our research shows that good PhDs are remarkably versatile and possess advanced skills that make them employable in academia, the corporate world, government and the voluntary sector – provided, of course, they have those additional competences referred to earlier.

I am prepared to put my head on a block that your brother lacks those add-on qualities.

Ask your brother a few additional questions before you sound off on social media.

While you were doing your PhD, did you present research papers at academic conferences and publish them in learned journals?

If you did five or six of those, you would have been snapped up by now for academic positions.

Did you volunteer in chemical laboratories during your winter or summer vacations, working hard to prove yourself as a potential future employee?

If you did, you would have caught the attention of private sector companies by now.

If your field of chemistry allowed for practical problem solving of, say, water quality supply in municipalities, have you made that work available in public forums such as the general media?

If you did, somebody in local or national government would have taken notice and pursued you as a potential employee.

In other words, if you sat in your classes and laboratories, missed lectures and crawled over the 50% pass mark for modules or just managed a respectable pass from one of your external examiners for the PhD then, trust me, that PhD means very little and should probably not have been awarded.

So, caring brother, as you will see there’s a lot more to a PhD than a certificate handed out at a graduation ceremony.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US


  1. Professor Jansen talks like he does not know the dynamics of South Africa. It’s okay, if he is going to say things like this, South Africa will lose scarce skills, because in reality you can bounce these ideas as much as he is doing now, but the reality out here is that there is nothing for us out here. Literally nothing at all. Why?? Because South Africa generally does not value PhDs at all… And that is a fact. But hey Professor Jansen knows better. And I would not say much cause we are the ones living this reality that he seems to take so lightly. The best thing to now is leave this country…

  2. I do not get this, I studies at University of the Free State Biochemistry I am still unemployed, I graduated in 2012 dnt think its about where you studied.

  3. I want to comment too but it’s very bad if the realities of RSA are seen with dusty specs. Lie is really difficult here hence the best thing is to leave the country and go and build other economies.

  4. Totally disagree with the Prof on this one. Think he missed the plot completely. Out of touch with reality.
    Let me put it to you like this Prof, I did all that additional stuff, from presenting at conferences and media houses. Have over 7 years working experience. But the only job opportunity most Masters and PhD students are offered. Internships!!! 1 Year Contracts!!! Therefore so many remain Underemployed!!! AND I form part of the Underemployed! The working poor.
    Furthermore, clarify this for me Prof., the #FeesCommission, Lehohla revealed that there are 9,8% unemployed Black graduates, 2,1% Whites, 0,95% Coloureds and 6,4% Indians.

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