Where Have All the Ph.D.’s Gone?

Brian Taylor

January 21, 2014

It was good news to read that the Council of Graduate Schools, with the support of two major foundations, would be jumping into the fray over the issue of Ph.D. job placement. The council has announced that it will conduct a feasibility study to track the careers of Ph.D. graduates among its 500 member institutions. The study will conclude next December with recommendations for a full-scale research project.

Aggregate data about Ph.D. job placements has been available for a long time, but, as useful as that information is, it would be far more helpful to students, advisers, and graduate-education reformers to have specific information about individual programs. Then students looking to go to graduate school could make informed choices that support their intellectual and professional aspirations. Their choices could lead institutions to work harder to improve the doctoral experience, expand the variety of career outcomes, and remove the stigma of pursuing a nonacademic career. That, essentially, is what I advocated last June in “Just Look at the Data, if You Can Find Any.

On the heels of that essay, The Chronicle began its own Ph.D. Placement Project. Based on crowdsourcing, it attracted more than 2,300 responses to an initial survey in June and demonstrated the widespread interest in more-specific placement data.

The council’s project has been a long time in coming. One might have hoped for it 40 years ago, when the so-called academic-job crisis started. All these years later, we don’t know enough about what happens to Ph.D.’s. To some extent, that might be because we don’t want to know. Knowing will force us to reconsider long-established practices that may no longer serve our students very well.

This study might shake up established institutional hierarchies, too, since I suspect there will be many programs that deliver outcomes that are strikingly different from what most applicants expect. That could be a good thing if those outcomes are appealing—such as a strong record of graduates’ securing positions outside of academe. And it would be useful to know which schools are effective at cultivating new options for their graduates.

More than anything else, a project of this kind will depend on good-faith participation. I hope that graduate programs will give the council’s project their full support and embrace the positive outcomes—along with the risks—that are likely to result from an honest assessment of how we are supporting the aspirations of our graduate students. After the council announced the new study, I contacted Nate Thompson, its associate director of communications, to learn more.

What prompted the decision to explore the idea of tracking Ph.D. placements?

Thompson: We know, through the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, that about 50 percent of doctoral students do not begin their careers in academe. The problem is: Those are aggregate data, and no one goes to graduate school in the aggregate. We need to better understand the broad range of career outcomes of Ph.D. alumni from particular programs so that institutions can use that information to improve their programs.

Our two ultimate goals are: first, to help institutions better align the career needs of students with Ph.D. program offerings, and, second, to enable graduate schools to provide prospective Ph.D. candidates with data that will help them make informed choices when choosing a program.

Some recent studies have demonstrated a growing desire on the part of U.S. students and educators for better information about Ph.D. placement. CGS surveyed graduate deans and found that 85 percent were only somewhat or not at all satisfied with their institutions’ ability to track career outcomes. A host of funding agencies, professional societies, and other organizations have recently called for graduate-career information.

What are impediments to the new project?

Thompson: Institutions have faced a wide variety of challenges in tracking their Ph.D. alumni. One significant impediment is funding. Developing a reliable methodology and allocating resources to track alumni can require a considerable investment. In times of constrained resources, it is difficult for many institutions to make this a top priority, especially if they are trying to develop a system from scratch.

Finding the human resources to track Ph.D. alumni has also posed a challenge. Traditionally, faculty members have maintained contact with Ph.D.’s who enter academic careers, and many departments track academic placements. At many institutions, questions remain about which institutional office should track Ph.D. career outcomes more broadly (beyond academe), systematically and long-term.

Maintaining long-term contact with Ph.D. alumni can be a great challenge, especially if they perceive that their nonacademic career pathway is not deemed as valuable as an academic career by their faculty or institution. There has also been a lack of a widely accepted tracking methodology that is sensitive to the variety of Ph.D. career trajectories among various fields.

What has changed that could make the project successful this time?

Thompson: The planning and design of this project give us many reasons to be optimistic about its potential. There is good momentum right now. CGS has spent several years gathering information from its member institutions about their needs in the area of career tracking. In sessions on the topic at our annual meetings and at workshops, graduate deans have begun to share their challenges in this area as well as methods for tracking alumni, both at the Ph.D. level and generally.

The feasibility study is the first of its kind to consider a broad range of fields for a tracking study: STEM, humanities, and social sciences. That breadth will help us include the broadest range of expertise available. Deans are important levers of change within their institutions. They are in the best position to advocate and support for tracking careers at the graduate level and to mobilize the resources necessary to accomplish that aim.

The initial feasibility study will gather their input on what is needed in this area and what is currently already being done. If the feasibility study merits a larger project, the council can mobilize a very engaged network of deans to develop best practices in this area. The project also brings together a diverse group of stakeholders beyond the graduate school. Beyond the perspectives of deans, we will hold a two-day workshop of researchers, graduate deans, Ph.D. holders, and other experts on the subject of tracking career pathways, with a goal of synthesizing their perspectives and ideas.

What are the potential benefits of the project? Will it change graduate education?

Thompson: As a feasibility study, the project takes an important first step toward a larger effort to develop best practices in tracking career outcomes. We will be able gather essential information about current practices, challenges, and attitudes related to career tracking in a survey fielded at more than 500 universities.

Longer-term, this project has the potential to allow institutions to:

  • Assess Ph.D. programming and determine the gaps and improve the quality.
  • Provide students with a better sense of the long-term career possibilities of earning a doctorate.
  • Allow programs to benchmark Ph.D. career outcomes with other institutions.
  • Clarify the extent to which doctoral students seek careers in business, government, and nonprofit sectors.
  • Help institutions to better align the expectations of faculty members and employers with student needs.

Many prospective graduate students are not especially concerned about job prospects; they prioritize their interest in a particular subject or discipline. Do you think the results of a project like this will reach them and affect their choices?

Thompson: Data from the Pathways Student Survey, published by CGS and the Educational Testing Service, suggest that students do care about having information about job prospects but do not feel they are receiving adequate or accurate information. About 62 percent of students in the survey reported that they either did not receive information, or received less information than was needed, about potential careers when they were applying to graduate school. In addition, 84 percent reported that the information they received about careers was only somewhat or not at all helpful, and 81 percent said it was only somewhat or not at all accurate.

Those results come as no surprise given the lack of outcomes information about specific degree programs. Early in 2014, CGS and ETS will put out an additional report from this survey data that will break out student perspectives on career information by field and degree level. We will be able to look specifically at the perspectives of Ph.D.’s in a variety of fields.

Do you see this project as direct support for the alternative-academic movement?

Thompson: One of the beliefs driving this project is that Ph.D.’s have valuable skills and expertise to contribute to a wide variety of careers both inside and outside of academe. In that sense, this project shares a key belief with participants in the “alt-ac” movement. One of our aspirations for a larger project—should this feasibility study lead to one—is to help institutions gather reliable data about the types of careers that Ph.D.’s actually pursue over the long term. We are eager to work with institutions to broaden the definitions of the doctoral workforce. With this new project, we will continue to nurture a dialogue with employers within and outside the academy in order to build appreciation for the unique contributions of Ph.D.’s to the workforce.

William Pannapacker is a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.