Do You Know Where Your Ph.D.'s Are?

Pressure mounts on colleges to track and report where graduates find jobs

Bryan Thomas for The Chronicle

Kathleen Maurer Smith is dean of the Division of Social Sciences at Molloy College, in Rockville Centre, N.Y. "I couldn't apply for associate professor until I finished the Ph.D. I was already where I wanted to be, I just needed my degree to move up."
September 23, 2013

Twenty years ago, 14 people earned Ph.D.'s in sociology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Their careers diverged from there.

One of them works in New Jersey teaching history to high-school students, some of whom recently immigrated to the United States.

Another 1993 graduate is director of student success and retention at the College of Westchester. One is a professor in the political-science department at William Paterson University. Others include a medical social worker, a priest based in rural India, and a onetime video-store owner.

Where the 1993 graduates are working post-Ph.D. isn't a mystery, thanks to the diligence of a longtime professor of sociology at Queens College, also part of the CUNY system. During a particularly tough academic job market in the early 1990s, Dean B. Savage started the work of tracking down every student who had earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the Graduate Center to find out where they went on to work. With the help of graduate students, he has created an ever-growing database of 471 people that dates back to graduates from 1971.

The data, which Mr. Savage updates periodically, provide a snapshot of where former students are employed and what positions they hold. They also provide a window into other placement-related trends, such as how far outside New York City people were willing to cast their nets while job hunting, how often Ph.D.'s opted to pursue nonacademic jobs, and how long it took for sociology students to earn Ph.D.'s

Mr. Savage took on the placement project because he saw some "very, very talented" doctoral students graduate without jobs. At the time, placement information for graduates of the sociology program was spottily recorded. He decided he needed to know more.

"I just started collecting data," says Mr. Savage, who is an affiliate faculty member at the Graduate Center. "That's what sociologists do."

The data he has collected document the bleak reality that many people already know about the academic market: A full-time job as a professor isn't a given for those who want one. In fact, since 1980, fewer than half of the sociology graduates hold full-time tenured or tenure-track jobs. But the data, which were most recently updated last year, also reveal some good news: The program's record of placing students in full-time jobs inside and outside academe has shown improvement over the years.

Just over half of the 59 graduates who earned Ph.D.'s between 1980 and 1984, for example, were full-time professors or in full-time administrative, research, or nonacademic positions when Mr. Savage last tracked them down (11 of those were retired). Two held part-time academic positions, four were independent scholars or self-employed, and 21 couldn't be located.

Students who graduated between 2005 and 2009 have been easier to find. Out of 64 students, nearly 90 percent were employed as full-time professors, administrators, researchers, or in jobs outside of academe. Two out of three of those Ph.D.'s held jobs on the tenure track or had already earned tenure.

Mr. Savage's most recent data capture the job market postrecession. The placement rate for graduates between 2010 and 2012 dipped to 53 percent. People who are self-employed or who are employed part time, in postdoctoral positions, or as visiting professors do not count as being successfully placed in the data.

Mr. Savage has shared his findings over the years with top officials at the Graduate Center, sociology-program faculty members, and graduate students. "Everybody needs to be aware of it," he says.

More people want better data on the job prospects of Ph.D.'s as the national conversation about the merits of graduate education has intensified and concerns have grown about whether programs are admitting more students than the academic market can bear. Many colleges have shown reluctance to produce Ph.D.-placement information, knowing that it would underscore the stark reality that doctoral students often do not get the kind of jobs they want for the money and the time they have spent in their graduate programs.

Prospective and current students, who often spend a decade or more earning degrees while amassing hefty student-loan debt, deserve to know just how difficult it is to land a tenure-track position when colleges are increasingly relying on adjunct labor, say scholars and others who advocate for more data. Placement data about nonacademic jobs could also serve as a guide for the growing number of Ph.D.'s in the humanities, social sciences, and other fields who are opting to entertain employment possibilities outside of higher education.

"There's a real reluctance to collect placement data, but unfortunately we live in a culture that is run by the bottom line," says L. Maren Wood, founder and lead researcher of the Lilli Research Group, a higher-education research-consulting firm for institutions and associations. "Placement data can be a powerful way to communicate to people exactly what they can do with a Ph.D."

Universities' track records on providing placement data for Ph.D. programs vary widely. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Duke, Michigan State, and Northwestern Universities are among those that collect unusually comprehensive data. Some individual departments also have good information about their graduates, including the history departments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rutgers University.

Elsewhere, the University of Virginia's graduate-studies office and its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences have worked together to track down the current or most recent placements of just over 1,500 Ph.D. students who graduated from 2005 to 2012. The plan is to update the data every September to include the newest graduating class and, eventually, create an online system that will allow placement data for individual students to be tracked over time.

Yet many institutions don't gather much placement information at all. And when they do, it's often limited. Where Ph.D. students land jobs is regularly shared within departments and among faculty via e-mail or by word of mouth, however. And placement records in general are discussed on academic message boards, where postings are often steeped in rumor and speculation.

The Chronicle recently created the Ph.D. Placement Project, a crowdsourced attempt to gather reliable placement data. When readers were asked about the need for such data, more than 1,000 people responded within a day. About a third said their departments didn't provide data on graduate students, and another third said they didn't know. At least a third reported that they didn't see any placement information when they applied to their Ph.D. programs.

"If you're not presenting your data, then why not?" asks William Pannapacker, a professor of English at Hope College, who has criticized universities for not accurately collecting and reporting placement data in columns he has written for The Chronicle. "The absence of placement data seems to say, What are you hiding?"

Mr. Savage's data set, which spans more than 40 years, is unusual because of its depth. A quick glance at his list shows many Ph.D.'s who became professors, deans, lecturers, and academic researchers. Among the many nonacademic jobs that the Graduate Center program's alumni hold are crisis counselor, behavioral scientist, social worker, children's-book author, art-gallery curator, and health-care consultant. Some people have retired. When Mr. Savage updated the data last year, he found at least seven people who earned Ph.D.'s in 2012 who were trying to gain some traction on the academic ladder, working in non-tenure-track positions. Graduates of the sociology program work at four-year colleges, two-year institutions, regional colleges, and flagships. Workplaces in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are heavily represented.

Collecting placement data like Mr. Savage's can be complicated, as his experience shows. It is a little easier now than when he first started, since he can search for people through Google and on sites like LinkedIn. Mr. Savage started his efforts with a list of the program's graduates from the CUNY registrar. Before the Internet, he said, "we would get in touch with their thesis adviser or someone we knew they were friends with or even members of their dissertation committee."

But even with the advent of online aids, there are still gaps in the information that Mr. Savage has collected. He has found some students, only to lose track of them in subsequent updates. More than 112 students have never been found. Older alumni are less likely to appear on sites like LinkedIn, and some people who do show up list vague or inflated titles or may have profiles that are out of date.

Not all placement data are created equal, either. Mr. Savage has tracked people's jobs no matter what they are because he thinks it's important to show the full range of employment outcomes for sociology Ph.D.'s.

Some other placement lists have no trace of former students who work as lecturers, adjuncts, academic administrators, or at jobs outside higher education. In some cases, departments cite only those graduates who end up as new professors at top-tier colleges, leading to a cherry-picked picture of where students land after earning Ph.D.'s

The reasons a department might not collect and disseminate data about their Ph.D's are many. For one, says Ms. Wood, the consultant, it's time-consuming. "Eighty percent of people are really easy to find, and then there's 20 percent that you really have to be creative about," she says, describing her typical search for placement data. "I use online databases, publications, newspaper clippings, RateMyProfessors.com—you really have to dig."

For institutions that don't have someone like Mr. Savage shepherding the data-collection process, paying a professional researcher can be too pricey. Even more daunting, for some, is the fear of what a closer look at placement might reveal.

"I would argue that graduate departments don't keep very good records because their placement rates aren't good, or at least not as good as they would like them to be," says Philip Kasinitz, a professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center who served as chair of the sociology program for 11 years. "They don't want to know."

Another shortcoming of most placement data that Ph.D. programs make public is their limited scope. Questions that many colleges and departments don't answer include: How long did it take for students to earn the degrees? How many years did it take for a new Ph.D. to get a tenure-track job? How many people quit pursuing Ph.D.'s, and why?

Mr. Savage tries to provide some answers to those kinds of questions by crunching numbers. He looked at time to degree and rates of completion, and his data show there's still work to be done in both areas. The median time to a Ph.D. for graduate students in the CUNY sociology program is eight years, and the program has an attrition problem, with less than half of students documented as eventually completing their studies.

The right adviser can play a big role in a graduate student's success, and the wrong adviser can be a roadblock. Mr. Savage tracked some information by adviser, such as completion rates, but he stopped short of linking advisers to the number of students placed in full-time positions.

"I thought that was a little bit edgy," Mr. Savage says.

For the most part, graduate programs have been let off the hook by the very people who would benefit most from knowing how Ph.D. students fared in job searches—graduate students themselves.

They are so consumed by the everyday rigors of graduate school—the coursework, the exams, the dissertation—that they don't start asking much about where their degrees are likely to take them until they are near the end of their programs.

"Now that I've graduated, it's all that I think about," says Zoe Meleo-Erwin, who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the Graduate Center in 2013. She started writing her dissertation last October, too late in the academic year to apply for most of the positions listed in her field for the current academic year. "When you first start your program, there are so many things you have to think about to get done, you're just focusing on all the mini-hurdles. Getting a job seems so far-off."

Ms. Meleo-Erwin says she is "amping up" her job search this fall. Unlike many of her predecessors in CUNY's program, she plans to apply for jobs outside of New York because, she says, "I don't really have the luxury to say I'm staying in New York and that's it."

According to Mr. Savage's data, nearly 60 percent of all students who graduated between 1971 and 2012 work or live in New York State. They're diehard fans of the Big Apple who often have family ties there, so they skip doing a national job search.

Those kinds of choices by Ph.D.'s complicate placement rates and raise questions about just how much control individual advisers and graduate programs have over their graduates' careers. And because of that, measuring a program's success by where graduates are employed is tricky and controversial.

Mr. Kasinitz, the former department chair, says the data help underscore that graduates of the sociology program do find meaningful, stable, full-time work even if they're not all employed at "the very top places."

But that could change soon. John C. Torpey, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center and the program's current chair, says its applicant pool is gradually becoming more national and international. More students are "less predisposed to remaining in New York," Mr. Torpey says. "It's my sense that people are going somewhat further afield," where the choice of top-tier colleges is much wider.

Part of landing a job is networking with people already in the field. Juan Battle, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center, says the employment information Mr. Savage has collected on hundreds of alumni has the potential to jump-start careers.

"Students should use them as a resource," says Mr. Battle, "I'm convinced that quite often, students don't utilize that network."

Mr. Pannapacker says another valuable network that graduate students should tap is students who dropped out of Ph.D. programs. But where they end up is usually unknown.

"They're usually the most interesting people because they're often pursuing careers that are useful and that matter," he says. "If I were a graduate student, I would want to be in touch with people like that."

Sometimes the path to professional happiness is an unexpected one, as it was for David T. Sehr, the high-school teacher who earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the Graduate Center in 1993. In graduate school, he did research on the role education plays in helping young people become effective citizens. That put him in contact with teachers and students in public schools. Not long after that, Mr. Sehr decided that life as an academic was not for him.

"I loved working with the kids in the interviews that I did, and I was talking to teachers who were doing the kind of work that I was doing research on," he says. "I was impressed enough to consider for the first time in my life that I might want to become a public-school teacher."

In 1993, Mr. Sehr began teaching English as a second language at a New Jersey high school. Five years later, he moved to another high school in New Jersey, where he teaches today.

"It's not as if I'm not using my degree," says Mr. Sehr, who turned his dissertation into a book on education's role in democracy. "I'm just doing it in the public schools, where I think the action is."

Mr. Sehr, however, says his career choice meant that he had to forge ahead on his own, because "no one could advise me on that." Ph.D. students would benefit from universities' having a "broader view" of where students might want to work, he says.

Mr. Savage agrees. Preparing graduate students for employment, whether inside or outside higher education, should be the job of all faculty members, he says.

"There is this long-entrenched faculty view that getting jobs for students is not our job," Mr. Savage says, "but I think that's changed."

Once faculty members in the sociology program saw Mr. Savage's data, they began organizing workshops on academic interviewing, how to publish before hitting the job market, and how to do a job talk. A workshop for graduate students about placement, featuring a presentation of the data he has gathered, is planned for this year. Mr. Savage says he wants to see an even wider distribution of the data.

"I would love to have it on the sociology Web site," he says. "I would love to have it handed to every single prospective grad student."

Finding a job is at the forefront of some students' consciousness, says Mr. Torpey, the department chair, and he wants it to be at the forefront of everyone's.

Students' attitudes toward placement might also have to do with the belief that where they end up working is mostly out of their hands.

"It all just comes down to what and how many jobs are available," says Sara Martucci, a fifth-year Ph.D. student who entered the CUNY sociology program in 2009, when the academic job market was still being battered by the effects of the recession. She says she's seen an uptick of new Ph.D.'s landing jobs over the past two years. "I'm just focused on making myself a better candidate."

If CUNY is going to continue to track where Ms. Martucci and others like her find jobs, someone else will eventually have to take over what began as, and mostly remains, the pet project of a single faculty member. Mr. Savage, who has taught at Queens since 1971, isn't sure who will will replace him once he retires.

"There might not be anybody quite as committed to this particular initiative as I am," Mr. Savage says.

Mr. Torpey is among those who believe that soon, pressure ­from scholarly organizations, prospective students, and recent graduates, and from institutions that have already made placement data a priority, will force graduate programs to do the same.

"It's a resources issue, to some degree, but with pressure the resources are going to be made available," Mr. Torpey says.

And once they are, some graduate programs may find out that things aren't as bad as they thought, particularly in the humanities, Ms. Wood says.

"The fear that you're going to find high unemployment and people working in crappy positions, I don't think that's going to materialize," she says. "I think universities will be pleasantly surprised."