An engineering doctorate holder working in a photocopy shop

A Case of Unfulfilled Promises of Higher Education; Navigating Economic Recession with a PhD in Hand

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by Rahim Said

In a world where higher education is often heralded as the gateway to a prosperous career, the stories of Malaysian PhD holders grappling with underemployment serve as stark reminders of the chasm between academic achievement and economic reality.

Two recent cases illustrate the profound challenges faced by highly educated individuals in a recessionary job market, raising critical questions about the value of advanced degrees and the broader socio-economic implications.

Take the case of a Malaysian man with a PhD in Engineering, who, despite his impressive academic credentials, has been working at a photocopy store for the past six years. Earning less than RM3,000 a month, this individual epitomises the plight of many graduates who, despite their qualifications, are unable to secure employment in their field of study.

This situation, shared by his friend Mohd Yazid Ismail, highlights a bitter irony: investing years in rigorous study and research, only to find oneself in a job that neither leverages one’s skills nor offers commensurate financial rewards.

On the flip side, there’s Nur Athirah Hashim, a PhD graduate in Chemistry who turned to entrepreneurship. While she successfully established a business specialising in keto foods, her story underscores a crucial point: the necessity of adaptability in a stagnant job market.

Athirah’s venture into the healthy food business, although successful, was driven by the absence of opportunities in her specialised field. Her resilience and entrepreneurial spirit are commendable, but they also reflect the systemic failures that push highly educated individuals to seek alternative pathways for survival.

These narratives raise pressing questions about the efficacy of our education system and its alignment with market demands.

In Malaysia, as in many parts of the world, the promise of higher education as a surefire ticket to success is increasingly being challenged. The economic recession has exacerbated this issue, highlighting the misalignment between academic qualifications and job market realities.

PhD holders, once seen as the pinnacle of educational attainment, now find themselves in precarious positions, their specialised knowledge undervalued in a volatile economy.

The implications are far-reaching. Firstly, there is an urgent need for universities and policymakers to reassess the relevance of academic programmes.

Curricula should be more aligned with industry needs, incorporating practical skills and real-world applications to better prepare graduates for the job market.

Moreover, career counselling and job placement services need to be significantly enhanced to support students in navigating their post-graduate lives.

Secondly, the economic policies should focus on creating a more robust job market that values and utilises the advanced skills of PhD holders. This involves not only stimulating economic growth but also fostering industries that can absorb such specialised talents.

Incentives for research and development, along with support for start-ups and innovation, can create more opportunities for highly educated individuals to thrive.

Lastly, there’s a cultural shift required in how we perceive success. The stories of the photocopy worker and the keto food entrepreneur remind us that adaptability, continuous learning, and entrepreneurial spirit are vital in today’s economy.

Higher education institutions should inculcate these values, preparing students not just for a specific career, but for a dynamic and unpredictable job market.

In conclusion, the tales of underemployed PhD holders in Malaysia are symptomatic of larger structural issues within our education system and economy.

While these stories are disheartening, they also serve as a clarion call for reform.

By aligning academic programmes with market needs, fostering a resilient job market, and embracing a broader definition of success, we can hope to bridge the gap between educational attainment and economic opportunity.

Dr. Rahim Said is a human behaviourist and regular contributor on digital media platforms. He is a professional management consultant, a corporate trainer and an executive coach specialising in coaching of senior executives and individual entrepreneurs with the purpose of modifying their behaviour in the pursuit of their cherished missions. (The views expressed by our columnist are entirely his own)