Why Australia needs to prevent the PhD brain drain - or graduates face being Uber drivers and baristas

Why Australia needs to prevent the PhD brain drain - or graduates face being Uber drivers and baristas

As Australia's reputation in the medical research and biotech industry grows, one of the country's primary goals must be retaining PhD talent.

With job options getting smaller, many PhD chemistry graduates are forced to look overseas for work, or even work outside their industries while they waited for opportunities to present themselves.

Having PhD candidates work as waiters, baristas or Uber drivers - which is often the reality - obviously isn't the best use of their talents for them or for our industry and economy.

We need to create more opportunities and options for our homegrown academic talent outside of the usual pathway of university work, so they can get that crucial experience in the commercial and innovation worlds.

Especially in the current economic and international climate, it's imperative we create those opportunities within Australia.

For example, in commercial medicinal and synthetic drug development our company, Epichem, is the only option for PhD graduates looking to work in that field in Western Australia, and while we continually reap the benefits of their skills, we'd like to see a more fertile employment market for those graduates within the state.

More government investment in research and development companies means more clients, more roles for our best and brightest and more of an attractive prospect for companies both domestic and international to develop their projects right here.

Everybody wins, but we do need to see some early investment to make that happen.

A joint report between the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and the CSIRO found that:

  • Annual PhD completions have more than doubled in the last two decades
  • There are many more PhD graduates than academic jobs available
  • There are significant opportunities ahead for PhDs to work with innovative Australian employers

Two key factors in improving PhD graduate retention are a change in the way business thinks and more investment within the industry across government and business.

PhD graduates can often be written off by business as overly academic and without the practical skills a business needs, but my experience nothing is further from the truth.

The benefits of bringing more of these smart, innovative thinkers into the commercial fold means there's less of an oversupply into academic roles, and they get the experience they need to channel their expertise into business and industry solutions.

Colin LaGalia is chief executive of Epichem in Western Australia.