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Should you do your PhD overseas or at home?

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Last year, The South African published a list of seven PhD graduates doing the republic proud locally and internationally. Six were products of local institutions while one, Dr Vuyane Mhlomi, obtained his DPhil from Oxford University.

The next question that usually arises is how do South African universities compare against the traditional favourites in North America and Europe. As the BRICS nation increases its role in the world economy and on various political platforms, it grows urgent that higher education in the region keeps pace too. After all, a key marker of a developed nation lies in numbers of skilled workers and output of research.

A new study aims to pinpoint how South African universities are faring against well-ranking institutions globally in terms of producing quality PhD graduates.

Helena Barnard from the University of Pretoria and her team compare career outcomes between the two groups – from three tiers of South African and two tiers of foreign universities – who are now working in the South African economy.

South Africa is the leading emerging economy in Africa. Source: Shutterstock

The researchers wrote in Quartz Africa: “In our study, we found that an individual who goes abroad to do a PhD and returns to his or her home country – South Africa in this case – has a more productive academic career than an individual who does his or her advanced schooling in South Africa.”

Data from the National Research Foundation’s rating system of South African researchers was then correlated with individuals’ educational profiles. They found that the world’s top schools exert “a very strong selection and self-selection effect”.

“The best students are attracted to and are found attractive by, top universities.” Upon return to their home country, there is evidence to show they achieve more career success.

Indeed, we see similar success stories in other countries and continents. In India, Kamala Bhagvat shattered glass ceilings when she was one of the few female students in its Indian Institute of Science (IISc). She later got her doctorate from Cambridge University and in 1939, became the first Indian woman to receive a PhD in a scientific discipline.

Upon her return to India, the biochemist did extensive, award-winning work to improve health in tribal communities and become President of the Consumer Guidance Society of India a few years before she retired.

Local universities catching up

But the relationship between foreign PhD and career success isn’t so simple. Research findings show that local universities are catching up with those deemed more established, providing “world class” training at the PhD level.


“In other words, local universities have long been expected to produce functionaries, not to generate new knowledge or thinking. But our research suggests that local scholars are doing the kind of work that puts them among the top tiers.”

With good policies in place, these institutions could produce research and training as world class as any top-tier university located elsewhere in the world.

The continent is in need of another one milllion scientists to generate new scientific knowledge, so the study offers hope for Africa to win the competitive race. As World Bank data from 2014 made clear, Africa produces less than one percent of the world’s research output despite being home to around 16 percent of the world’s population.

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