JEDDAH—Noura Youssef has what many here would consider an excellent job: Working in an international energy company’s local office half of the year and conducting research in an American university during the other half.
The arrangement helps Youssef, who has a Ph.D., avoid “living in the academic bubble,” she says, while also fulfilling her desire to contribute to the development of her country.
But “I am a rare case,” Youssef says.
Outside academe, those who hold Ph.D.’s in the Saudi marketplace have little opportunity for work and face many challenges finding jobs.
Saudi Arabia’s economy is flourishing. Many Saudis aspire to have a “knowledge economy” producing new technology, medicine and other products generated by research. But like other Gulf countries, the economy is still largely dependent on oil, which constituted 92 percent of total Saudi revenues in 2012, according to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency. That limits the amount of jobs that require Ph.D.s, Youssef says.
“Our economy usually needs low-skilled staff,” she says. Countries that focus more on innovation hire experts, researchers and high-tech specialists. In Saudi Arabia, “we are mere consumers most of the time,” she says.
Mounira Jamjoom, who also holds a PhD., says part of the problem is that research in Saudi Arabia—including at the nation’s universities—remains weak. “We have very little research and development in our private sector,” she says, “and even the multinational corporations that operate in the region don’t usually require Ph.D. researchers anywhere other than their original headquarters,” which are often outside Saudi Arabia.
In the public sector, the presence of people holding the highest possible degree is also limited. Ph.D. holders account for only 2.3 percent of those working in government jobs, according to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Services.
Yet workforce limits haven’t deterred a growing number of Saudi Arabian students from pursuing Ph.D.s—an increase fueled by government-sponsored scholarship programs for overseas study. Statistics from the Ministry of Higher Education show that during the 2012-2013 academic year, more than 900 Saudi Ph.D. students on governmental scholarships graduated abroad, as opposed to about 400 the previous year, and just 71 in 2010-2011.
Ashraf Al-Fagih recently graduated with a Ph.D. in computer science from a Canadian institution, with a scholarship from Saudi’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, one of the nation’s top institutions, where he now teaches. He says scholarship programs are producing more Ph.D. graduates than are needed. He blames the gap in part on a lack of coordination between the Ministry of Higher Education, universities and the private sector. “But, I don’t blame the ministry alone,” he says. The fundamentals of the Saudi economy have hardly changed over the past decades, he says.
Al-Fagih, however, is happy working in academe. “It was always my goal to teach,” he says. He also says those who have Ph.D. should have a plan for where they want to go next.
For others who seek to work outside universities, there is one sector that some turn to: consulting firms. “It is the only sector that is booming in Saudi [and that] can make money out of your knowledge,” says Youssef. Consulting companies, she says, are looking for highly skilled researchers to work in and outside their fields of expertise “because they are looking at your problem solving skills, research capabilities, thinking skills, and that requires that you to be flexible.”
Jamjoom, who started her career in an education consulting company, says graduates should take matters into their own hands. “We should not always blame the ministry of labor or the ministry of higher education,” she says. “Finding a job is really about you. If you are smart, talented and can sell yourself, then you will find a job.”
Sara Zaini, an education expert who co-founded a consulting company with Jamjoom, says students often follow a hazardous pattern that discourages private companies from hiring Ph.D. graduates. “They [receive] their bachelors degree, masters and then Ph.D. without gaining experience in life and work,” she says. “Many return with nothing more than years of theoretical knowledge.” Although many universities are increasingly emphasizing work experience and internships, many still do not.
Students who receive Ph.D.s abroad on scholarship and who are required to work as academics once they return home are particularly prone to go without gathering any time in work environments. “It’s the same blood circulating in the same place without building real experience, which even affects the quality of university education,” says Zaini. She also notes that many research-based jobs are centered in the capital city, Riyadh, which means narrower opportunities in the rest of the Kingdom.
Zaini believes solutions to the gap have to be both top down and bottom up: Companies need to change their cultures to allow more participation by well-educated researchers, while Ph.D. students must seek work experience while studying.KSA
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