How do people with PhDs contribute to the society?

Recently I read an interesting blog post (sadly only in Finnish) where the authors discuss how people with PhDs can contribute to Finnish firms and industries at large. According to the text, the number of unemployed doctors is increasing whereas in countries like Belgium, Denmark, and Germany many PhDs are being employed by the private sector.

So why are Finnish companies so reluctant to hire PhDs? Are they too expensive? Too detached from the surrounding society? Or are we simply approaching the issue from a ‘wrong’ perspective? (see e.g. Helsinki Design Lab’s initiative to regard school dropouts as a valuable resource for improving the educational system)

As the blog post acknowledges, interesting openings have been made already, and there are currently plans for creating curricula for doctoral education that would be better suited for career paths outside academia. In a way this makes sense, as not everyone with a PhD is able to land a job in academia. Nor does everyone want that, mind you!

But when you look at current doctoral education curricula,  it seems that a majority of programs is focusing on educating doctoral hopefuls with skills that would advance their career in academia. Or in other words, doctoral education is only focusing on the individual. OK, we are being taught to be part of academic communities, and more often than not we are encouraged – if not even conditioned – to see academic publishing as a conversation, but still little attention seems to have been paid on how research can actually contribute to the surrounding society.

And here’s the main point: why don’t we organize doctoral level courses where the participants would be exposed to tools and methods that would help the researcher see how their research can contribute to the surrounding society (firms, municipalities, individuals etc.)? In our university, and here I’m shamelessly promoting our program, we are organizing workshops for young researchers where the participants are encouraged to reflect on their research from the society’s point of view. How does the technology I am working on influences individuals? What kind of value does it create in the future? What kind of research projects could we launch today that are based on potential future scenarios? These are the kinds of questions we are dealing with, and it’s super amazing to see the participants experience a mindset shift in the way they approach research.

To conclude, I think it’s amazing that the Finnish private sector is warming up to the idea of employing people with PhDs, and now it is up to universities and researchers to redesign the doctoral education curriculum so that it enables students to approach PhD from various perspectives. But we shouldn’t forget the main reason why we conduct research: passion for knowledge. I’m not advocating here that doctoral students should become slaves to the private sector’s needs, but what is needed is an atmosphere that encourages doctoral students to approach their research from various perspectives.

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