Graduate Students

Graduate Schools Need to Improve Career Counseling, Report Says

April 19, 2012

By 2020, 2.6 million new jobs will require an advanced degree, according to a report being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service. And graduate schools need to do a better job, the report says, of preparing students for a range of careers and tracking where they work.

The report, "Pathways Through Graduate Schools and Into Careers,"projects that the number of jobs requiring a master's degree will increase by 22 percent over the next eight years, and the number of jobs requiring a doctorate or professional degree will increase by 20 percent.

Yet the pathways through graduate school and into careers are riddled with obstacles, the report says, that will hinder the country's ability to tap graduates with high-level knowledge and skills, unless universities and employers team up to strengthen ties between graduate-school training and work-force needs.

One of those obstacles is a lack of understanding among graduate students about the full range of career options available to them once they earn degrees. This information is crucial at a time when graduate-degree holders are increasingly exploring careers outside of academe because of the shrinking proportion of openings for tenure-track positions.

"To date, there has been little research to identify whether graduate students understand the relationship between their studies and future career options," says Cathy Wendler, co-author of the report and principal director of research at the testing service. "If we can illuminate career pathways, we will ensure that students have a map or framework within which to make informed choices, employers will understand key factors integral to employee and employer success, and universities will be able to adapt and improve programs to better meet work-force demands."

This latest study is a follow-up to a 2010 report, "The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States," which found that about half of Ph.D.'s work in careers outside of academe. But upon completion of that report, its authors did not know how students made choices about those careers.

The new study examined how much graduate students knew about their career options before entering graduate school, during their time in their programs, and upon completing their degrees. After looking into how students learned about viable career options and the role that graduate programs played in guiding students into careers, the report found that there is a lack of transparency about career options, especially at the doctoral level.

Only about one-third of graduate students received enough information about the full range of career options before entering graduate school, the report found, and many students relied on faculty to provide information about viable careers during their time in graduate school. But students often received limited information about career options because faculty members are only aware of their own career trajectories or do not know much about pathways beyond academe.

Need for Better Tracking

Graduate deans told the report's authors that their students are not very knowledgeable about career options. While some graduate schools provide information or programs regarding career options, career guidance has not been a high priority among universities. Who was—and who should be—responsible for providing information about the full range of career options was not clear from the survey.

James C. Wimbush, dean of the graduate school at Indiana University, says graduate schools need to do a better job of systematically tracking career outcomes of students to better understand what jobs their students take and how their careers progress.

"If they had a better understanding about where graduates are working, we would be better at preparing students for a variety of different careers and do a better job of preparing them," Mr. Wimbush says. "And students going into graduate programs would have a better idea about what's available to them."

The graduate-school council also talked with employers in a range of business and government settings to better understand their expectations of new hires with graduate degrees, how they measured job success, and the pathways into various careers.

"We found that companies do value people with advanced degrees," Mr. Wimbush says.

Employers noted that graduate-degree holders brought value to their organizations because of their ability to learn fast and solve complex problems, Mr. Wimbush says. But employers also felt that graduate-degree holders lacked some essential professional skills needed for success in a business environment, such as savvy teamwork and presentation skills. The report emphasized that more graduate students need to be taught to innovate, apply their content knowledge to other areas, and think like entrepreneurs.

"Graduate schools continue to work on a model that trains people to work individually and not collaboratively," says Mr. Wimbush. "We are asking that graduate programs work more closely with employers so that students will know what skills they will need to be successful on the job."

The report recommends that university officials track career outcomes of their graduates; make stronger career-counseling services available; do more to connect graduate students with graduate alumni; broaden the focus of graduate education to include development of more professional skills; and build more opportunities for graduate school faculty and students to engage with businesses, government agencies, and other nonacademic employers.

Employers, meanwhile, should enhance and expand collaborative relationships with their higher-education counterparts; make strategic investments in graduate programs; provide more internship and research opportunities for graduate students; offer sabbatical and research opportunities for graduate faculty; and provide financial assistance for employees wishing to pursue graduate studies, the report says.

"Graduate school is no longer about making clones of ourselves and training people with the same techniques to work on the same problems from decades ago," says Pat S. Osmer, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at Ohio State University and chair of the commission that produced the report. "It is about identifying the important research and solving problems of the 21st century. We need to make sure graduate students learn the right skills and techniques to do that."