This past year, I worked with the American Historical Association on its placement study. We were thrilled at the detail and depth we achieved using publicly available data to track 2,500 history Ph.D.'s who graduated between 1998-2009.
I am a great proponent of comprehensive placement studies because they can help shatter the myth that a tenure-track job is the only successful outcome of a Ph.D. Like many graduate students and Ph.D.'s, I, too, would like to see program-specific placement data. If we are to reform graduate education, we should do so knowing the outcome of the degrees people already earn. Placement studies can provide the sort of concrete data we need to show the important contribution made to our society by humanists, social scientists, and scientists.
And so, I was excited to learn that the Council of Graduate Schools will undertake a best-practice study of how graduate schools track placement data. Organizations like CGS have a critical role to play in pushing for the collection and publication of accurate, detailed placement data. The council can set standards and guidelines so that placement data can be compared between universities and departments nationwide.
Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my research on placement rates with several deans, directors of graduate career services, and faculty members who are eager to conduct their own studies. From those conversations, I learned about the many challenges that graduate deans face when they begin to tackle the problem of collecting placement data. Figuring out how to collect accurate data and how to pay for such large-scale studies are but two concerns. Other challenges in data collection arise from bureaucratic inefficiencies at their home institutions that transcend the graduate schools.
At most universities, data about alumni are gathered by different offices—alumni services, individual departments, fund raising—but seldom shared. Before deans begin to collect additional data, they need to know what the university has collected already. That requires buy-in from other top administrators. How do graduate deans encourage alumni services and development to share their alumni database? And once the deans have collected data on the placement rates of Ph.D.'s, where do they store the information, and who updates it? It hardly seems ideal to have placement data stored in an Excel spreadsheet file on Dropbox.
Several deans I spoke with felt that, in conjunction with placement studies, they would need to develop an IT database on a university network so that various groups of people could have access to the information and update it. That requires much more time, a much larger budget, and cooperation with other divisions in the university that may have other priorities.
CGS should make that a central part of its inquiry: Who are the stakeholders at the university—beyond the graduate school and individual academic departments—who need to be won over? What strategies have deans employed to share alumni data with other divisions? Is data sharing across the institution even feasible, and if so, how do we make it a reality?
Most institutions, with limited resources, will need the help and support of faculty members to do a better job of collecting placement data and alumni contact information for their individual departments. In an era of cutbacks and at a time when humanities and social-science departments are being eliminated, some faculty members view the attempt to track placement data as a hostile move by graduate-school administrators. Professors wonder: What are the goals of the graduate school in collecting this data?
Unless administrators across the university believe that there are many viable and valuable career outcomes for Ph.D.'s beyond the professoriate, and unless that message is clearly communicated to academic departments, faculty members won’t want to participate in these placement studies or make their data public.
An equally critical question: What are the attitudes of other senior administrators at the institution toward career options for Ph.D.'s? Those of us who are pushing for this placement data, with the anticipation that it will showcase the value of a graduate degree, would be outraged if these studies were used by campus officials (provosts, presidents, board of trustees) or state legislatures to gut liberal-arts programs and reduce money for graduate education in favor of, say, the business school.
Inevitably, institutional placement studies will show that a smaller number of Ph.D. graduates are in tenure-track positions than faculty or administrators expect. How do deans ensure that placement studies will be used to improve, instead of jettison, graduate education at their institution? We know the benefits of placement data, done correctly and accurately, but we should also be aware of, document, and strategize for, the potential negative fallout.
L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a company that provides research consulting services for organizations and career coaching for Ph.D. job seekers. She lives in Denver, Colo.