|Switzerland relies on its capacity for innovation for much of its prosperity. But there is a systemic shortage of engineers. Swiss companies benefit from the highly-qualified staff that universities train. This is the case not only for graduates with a Master’s degree but also for those with a doctorate or post-doctorate. Contrary to popular belief, not all scientists trained at EPFL follow an academic career. And only some of those who choose a non-academic career work in multinationals: they work both in large companies and SMEs in all of the country’s major economic sectors. They are a significant source of highly skilled labour for Switzerland.|
Between 2016 and 2020, EPFL awarded, on average, 415 doctorates each year and hired 350 people for postdoctoral training. Most of these researchers (83%) are of foreign nationality and stay at EPFL for an average of 4.5 years for a doctorate and 2 years for postdoctoral positions. This data story analyses the career paths of those who chose to work outside academia after leaving EPFL.
Career paths after EPFL
Through the excellence of its research activities, its international recognition and its capacity for innovation, EPFL contributes to advancing scientific knowledge and developing solutions to global challenges. It also attracts and trains the best scientists who come to EPFL for their doctorate or post-doctorate.
Around 60% of these scientists pursue careers outside the academy. They set up their own company (5%), work in the private sector (47%) and, more rarely, in the public sector (7%) or a non-governmental organisation (1%).
This is an important source of highly qualified labour for Switzerland. In fact, two-thirds of those outside academia today are employed by a company in Switzerland.
EPFL scientists: Switzerland’s entrepreneurs
EPFL is an ideal place to start a business. Its proximity to the Innovation Park and the initiatives in place instill a spirit of entrepreneurship in the members of its community.
As a result, EPFL has become a significant breeding ground for entrepreneurs. Of the scientists trained between 2016 and 2020, 147 are now managing their own start-ups or are independent professionals.
These people are creating new jobs for Switzerland. 64% of them are of foreign nationality, but most (80%) have decided to set up their business in Switzerland. As the map below shows, these people have mainly set up their businesses in the canton of Vaud.
EPFL scientists: talents for SMEs and large companies alike
Contrary to popular belief, scientists trained at EPFL do not only benefit multinational companies or the digital world: they work in both large companies and SMEs and across all of Switzerland’s major economic sectors.
Among the scientists trained at EPFL between 2016 and 2020, 868 work for a company in Switzerland. While the biggest employers of these scientists are the country’s large companies such as Roche, Google, Novartis, Oracle, Lonza and Rolex, 43% work for a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME). Most of these SMEs are small businesses active in developing new technologies, contributing to the dynamism of the innovation ecosystem.
EPFL scientists are involved in all sectors of the economy. The companies that use these talents most are in the manufacturing industry, mainly pharmaceuticals, chemicals and machinery.
EPFL scientists: for the digital revolution
The shortage of engineers is particularly acute in the field of digitalisation. The digital transformation of Swiss society is profound. The need for specialists in these fields affects all sectors of the Swiss economy.
Some 390 scientists trained at EPFL between 2016 and 2020 are currently working in positions directly related to digitalisation, such as software engineers or data scientists. These people do not only work in IT companies. In fact, only 40% of them work in a company in this sector. The rest are helping with the digital transition in other sectors of the economy. This is particularly true in the manufacturing and banking industries.
These talents come from a variety of backgrounds at EPFL. Only half of them have a degree in computer science or electrical engineering. Many of those helping the Swiss economy with its digital transformation have other backgrounds, such as mathematics, physics or chemistry.
EPFL talents: maintaining the attractiveness of EPFL to third-country nationals
Under current law, university graduates from non-EU or non-EFTA countries can only stay in Switzerland for six months after completing their studies to find a job. What’s more, a company can only take them on if it can prove that there are no Swiss or European nationals with the required profile.
Our analysis shows that scientists trained at EPFL from outside the Schengen area are less likely to stay and work in Switzerland.
Indeed, of the scientists trained from 2016 to 2020, 671 Europeans (EU/EFTA) and 448 from outside the EU are currently working in a private company. However, 65% of Europeans work for a company in Switzerland. This proportion falls to 55% for those from non-EU countries. The rest work for companies abroad. However, our data do not allow us to explain the reasons for this difference or to make a direct link with the current legal framework.
Most scientists trained at EPFL work in the private sector or set up their own companies. EPFL is a significant source of talents for both large companies and the country’s high-tech SMEs, contributing to the dynamism of its innovation ecosystem.
EPFL needs to prepare these young scientists for roles outside academia. This is why EPFL encourages the development of cross-disciplinary skills among its scientists, such as project management, communication, leadership and entrepreneurship. To this end, EPFL launched the Transversal Skills and Career Center in 2022 and supports the most promising talents through its Student Support Programme.
We collected data on the professional activity of people who started a PhD or postdoc at EPFL between 2016 and 2020 and who were no longer employed (in that same position) by EPFL in March 2023. To this end, each person was searched on the web for public information on their current activity (position, company, responsibilities, location, etc.). Most of the data collected came from the Linkedin profiles of each person, as well as from the yearbooks of the various research institutions. We were able to complete the information for 90% to 95% of people, for different years.
In order to better characterise the distribution of long-term roles and the influence of EPFL on their careers, we have limited the data in this data story to :
Data collection is based on public data, which entails certain restrictions:
Omar Ballester, Tristan Maillard