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PhDs are no meal tickets in Indonesia

By Bitra Suyatno - posted Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Many Indonesians would be very proud when they get a scholarship. The government of Indonesia through the Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP scholarship) allocated Rp35 trillion (more than US$24 billion) for 4,000 recipients in 2018. This contrasts with Australia, which in 2017 provided around 300 scholarships, with 15% (45 awards) for doctoral scholarship and the remaining 255 grants for master’s degrees. There was a highly competitive field of more than 5,300 applicants.

The government has a target of producing 4,000 new PhDs each year. By 2025, the national target is to achieve 52,000 new PhDs. This indicates that Indonesia was under supplied with higher degreesand that applicants might expect the scholarship to accelerate their career and contribution to society.

Nevertheless, many individuals have a false sense that by having higher degrees they will have security in the job market. That is not true, particular for those not working as lecturers, researchers or public policy analysists. Based on global trends, we believe that those jobs will be saturated very soon.


Currently, some master and doctorate degree scholarship recipients have been placed in poorly matching jobs where their area of expertise does not really match with the position, or in positions lower on the ladder. LTA research in 2018 revealed that only 60 percent of individuals obtained higher managerial positions upon returning from study overseas, and only 51 percent of them obtained a higher salary. While, some “fresh” doctoral graduates under the LPDP scheme in 2015 were questioning whether or not jobs would be available for them post study. Data in 2012 surprisingly revealed that 217 master degree scholarship graduates from overseas were unemployed in Aceh.

This case of an Indonesian PhD who had failed to get a lecturing job at a university in Indonesia is common in Indonesia.

So, what are the real problems? We suspect that one of the main problems is that a majority candidates pursue scholarships in areas where the number of students greatly outweighs the number of positions available. For instance, in law, many individuals who gain law degree may not become lawyers. The positions available are limited, while on the other hand, individuals who seek the jobs are abundant.

In September 2017 President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) criticized the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) for failing to produce graduates who would take up farming with many of them preferring to work in banks. Similarly, the Minister of National Development Planning / Head of National Development Planning Agency at that time, Bambang Brodjonegoro in July 2018 said graduate engineers were currently estimated to number 750 thousand people but only 90 thousand (around 12 percent) worked as professional engineers. The rest worked in irrelevant professions such as banking and even companies that have nothing to do with their expertise.

This could be because of the lack of available jobs that match their skills and abilities. Besides, it often happens also that the graduates receive a much better employment package if they work at jobs other than those they are trained for, because of a higher salary and allowances.

Consequently, many individuals are working outside their field of training.At a national level we see that the problems are more catastrophic than you may think.  By the end of 2018, the Minister of Labor at that time, Hanif Dhakiri said that 63 percent of employees in Indonesia were placed in unsuitable jobs. We can see that some high-degree holders with qualifications in management, economics, accounting, and law work at poorly matched professions such as  photographers or data entry clerks.


One problem is once one works at one of the poorly matched jobs it is not easy to go back to the jobs for which one is trained. How one’s CV is tailored to the position he or she is applying for and how his or her previous roles align with the job description he or she is applying for are very crucial. If an individual has an accounting degree but is working as a photographer, later it might be difficult to get at jobs related to his education background.

Their degree certificates could not get the individuals relevant jobs. Does the degree give them more pay, more respect, greater career progress? Unfortunately, some of them would say “No”.

The solution is that candidates should pursue scholarships in fields for which there are jobs or positions post study. Don’t apply for fields only because the disciplines are commonly favourites, consider whether the job market has been saturated.

As Finance Minister Sri Mulyani said there are many disciplines that are truly needed by many financial institutions in Indonesia, such as degree in asset management or actuarial science. Unfortunately, many candidates tend to apply only for majors, such as public policy which are popular among candidates.

Another option is that individuals need to start looking for certifications rather than college degrees. Many currently advertised jobs ask for professional certifications rather than a masters or doctoral degree. People might also need to shift to study at vocational schools as another option. Forget the graduation photo on the living room wall - most of the workforce needs more technical certificates.

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About the Author

Bitra Suyatno ( is a Doctor of Business Administration who graduated from Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia in 2018. Currently he is working at the Ministry of Finance the Republic of Indonesia. His posts represent his own views. He blogs at

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