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Exploring science at the British Library

24 September 2015

A novel use of PhD data: Investigating the state of the Dementia Workforce

Katie Howe explains how data from the British Library’s electronic thesis service EThOS has been used in a report into the state of dementia research in the UK.

EThOS is the British Library’s electronic theses service. By working with universities across the UK EThOS is able to provide records for over 400,000 UK PhD theses going back as far as the 19th century. For 165,000 of these PhD theses it is also possible to access a full text version of the document. A key feature of EThOS is that you don’t have to come to the BL to use it - in fact it is accessible from anywhere in the world.

In previous blog posts we have described how EThOS could be a valuable resource for scientific researchers (see here and here). However, as an extensive source of information on PhDs undertaken in the UK, EThOS data can also be used to look at trends in PhD research over time. A recent report by the Alzheimer’s Society illustrates this approach. Graph

The Alzheimer’s Society appointed RAND Europe to produce a report on the state of dementia research in the UK. RAND wished to investigate the dementia workforce pipeline - how many researchers are working on dementia and how this is changing over time. As EThOS contains records for a high (and growing proportion) of recent PhD theses, RAND contacted the EThOS team to ask for their help with this investigation. EThOS Metadata Manager Heather Rosie and her colleagues undertook bespoke analysis for RAND and produced a list of theses awarded from 1970 onwards. The graph above shows the results. Dementia-related PhD research has been steadily increasing over the last 30 years. However, cancer-related PhDs have skyrocketed over the same time frame. Now five times more PhD researchers chose to work on cancer than dementia.

InfographicRAND were also interested in what proportion of PhD students studying dementia stay in the field. To investigate this they traced about 1500 dementia PhD researchers to find out about their career since finishing their PhD. The results show that of those who do complete a PhD in dementia, retention in the field is poor with 70% leaving the field within four years. Only 21% are still researching dementia. (The results are summarised on the infographic opposite. A full version of which can be seen here)

The researchers gave a number of reasons for leaving the field of dementia but amongst the most common was a concern over the increasing competition for senior faculty positions. This is not a problem unique to dementia research but spans all of academia. This is a familiar issue for us in team ScienceBL and a previous series of blog posts outlines some alternative career options for those undertaking biomedical PhDs (here and here).

As well as being a great source of detailed information for scientific researchers, PhD theses accessed through EThOS can be used to find out about individual researchers or to help students structure their own PhD thesis. This report shows another novel use of PhD data enabled by the size and national scope of the EThOS resource. The full report can be seen here.

Katie Howe


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