A Mismatch in Goals

Survey of STEM doctoral students at three research universities reveals their declining interest in tenure-track jobs.

July 19, 2012

Scientists-in-the-making in research university graduate programs are growing less and less likely to want tenure-track jobs, and even when they do want an academic job, many of them might be more inclined toward teaching than research.

These findings are part of the “Longitudinal Study of Future Stem Scholars,” by Mark R. Connolly, an associate scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Ann Austin, a professor of education at Michigan State University, who have been surveying 2,000 doctoral students at three universities: Arizona State University, the University of Washington, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The six-year study, which will wrap up in 2014 and is funded by the National Science Foundation, found that students’ interest in tenure-track careers declined by 10 percentage points from 53 percent to 43 percent, from 2009 to 2011.

The researchers also found that even though these doctoral students are losing interest in research-oriented faculty jobs, college teaching is growing in its appeal to them. Another set of numbers from the survey shows that the students’ interest in teaching, on a scale of one to five, rose from 3 to 3.10 (Connolly said this is statistically significant because of the large number of students being surveyed) from when they began graduate school and when surveyed in 2011. The percentage of those extremely interested in teaching went up from 34.9 percent to 40.6 percent in that time period.

The findings mirror the results of a survey in the journal PloS One released in May. That study of doctoral students in the life sciences, chemistry and physics found that the attractiveness of an academic career decreased as students made their way through doctoral programs.

These doctoral programs aren’t doing a good job of preparing students for a wider variety of careers, Connolly asserts. And that, he said, leads to a three-way mismatch between the expectations of students, what they are trained in, and whether these students find the jobs they want.

So why is the attractiveness of a traditional research-oriented faculty job fading for STEM doctorates?

Connolly has a list of reasons: Tenure-track faculty are being asked to do more with fewer resources, there are only a few faculty members whose lives represent the work-family balance that doctoral students might aspire to, and there are fewer available tenure-track positions. The challenge is even greater for an academic couple looking for jobs, he said.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these doctoral students are shying away from other kinds of academic jobs, he says. “[W]e find from the interview component of our longitudinal study that doctoral students’ interest in 'fast-track' faculty jobs -- such as those their faculty advisers are usually grooming them for -- may fade… but not necessarily their interest in academic work. More often than not, they will still want to work at a college or university,” Connolly wrote in an e-mail message.

Connolly interviewed doctoral students who told him that they wanted to emulate their favorite teachers, and enrolled in doctoral programs hoping that they could excel in research as well as teaching. “But what many of my study participants really learned during grad school about teaching was how little it is valued,” he said. The students got the message that being a good researcher is not compatible with being a good teacher, and that a deep interest in teaching could be interpreted by some as a sign of a second-rate researcher, Connolly said.

One way to solve this conundrum of mismatched expectations might be to steer students toward teaching development activities, he says, but that is dependent on faculty advisers and the prevailing "climate" in a department.

“As for whether science Ph.D. programs are or are not encouraging people to consider academe as a profession, I think faculty at these distinguished research universities still prefer that their doctoral advisees become just like them; that is, the faculty have an almost irrepressible urge to replicate themselves through their doctoral advisees’ careers,” Connolly wrote in the e-mail. “Nearly every other career option, if not considered heretical, is probably an afterthought to the faculty.”

Chris Golde, associate vice provost for graduate education at Stanford University, has served as a research director for the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. She said in an e-mail that she was not surprised by the findings, and that other surveys over the years have reached similar conclusions. “The larger point is that these findings have been with us for some time,” she said “But as we all know, change in academia is incremental, not revolutionary.”

Golde, who is also on the advisory board of Connolly’s study, said many universities have been working for years to prepare doctoral students for a career or skills development. She mentioned the Preparing Future Faculty program that was launched in 1993 by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

But although many faculty members agree with these efforts, there are some holdouts, she said. “For their part, many students may be reluctant to initiate conversations about career paths, because they are apprehensive about the possible negative consequences,” Golde said. “I believe that more [students] are fearful than need to be, but I understand why they worry.”


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