WASHINGTON – The payoff for students who decide to pursue a doctorate is uncertain enough  with today’s job market. And the feeling that most colleges don’t do much to track or publicize their graduates’ career tracks – or lack thereof – doesn’t make matters any easier.
Two graduate deans who have focused on these issues shared their experience with a packed room of colleagues Thursday at the Council of Graduate Schools’ annual meeting  here at a Washington hotel.
Judging by the interest in the presentation, tracking career outcomes is, as yet, an unattained goal of many graduate deans. Some of the issues standing in their way, they said, are decentralized information gathering; an inability to pay additional administrative staff to track the data consistently; and tension between faculty and deans on what constitutes a successful placement.
Despite those obstacles, spirits were high as Lynne Pepall, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Tufts University, did some data gathering of her own: she provided clickers for attendees to answer questions about their institutions in real time. Pepall asked the audience who tracks career data of graduates and alumni. She had anticipated the response: 9 percent answered the program or department, 12 percent said alumni relations, 15 percent said the graduate school and 59 percent said data are not tracked systematically by any of the options (the rest said "other").
“This is kind of what we were expecting. We’re all in the same boat here,” Pepall said. That’s why the session aimed to explore “how to think about those challenges and meet them in an era where it’s not easy to add on any other administrative staff” to track these data with integrity.
At Tufts, programs collected career placement data of doctoral recipients from 2005-10, broken down by discipline and postdocs. Now Pepall and her colleagues are using the information to draw conclusions about how they should be modeling different programs. One example: 90 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the arts and humanities went on to work in academe. That tells Pepall that Tufts needs to ensure arts and humanities students are prepared to be excellent teachers.
One person in the audience raised an issue she faces at a research university, and her comments were met with murmurs of agreement throughout the room. She asked the presenters whether they’ve been able to manage the tension among faculty members who don’t want to accept that their graduates want to pursue jobs outside academe.
Pepall nodded in understanding. (The data she presented also showed that only about 30 percent of Ph.D.s in the natural and social sciences go into academe.) “It’s unreasonable to expect faculty to know or do anything that isn’t what they do as faculty,” she said. “There’s a tendency for faculty to think they own their graduate students, and so it is a tension.” However, those present seemed to agree that younger faculty members tend to have a different attitude.
At the University of California at San Francisco, co-presenter and UCSF graduate dean Patricia Calarco said, surveys of faculty members did show that the majority of them are resistant to non-academic goals for their graduate students. But it’s possible that students changed their minds somewhere along the way: data also showed that graduate school decreases students' confidence in their early career choice; that career preferences shift during the first three years of doctoral training; and that by graduation, one-third of students choose a non-research career path.
UCSF is using its data – which explored the disparities between what career paths students take, the paths they want to take, and the paths faculty members think they take – to figure out what sorts of opportunities it should offer students. Calarco wants to make sure students have awareness of their skills, that they understand their career options and have career planning and networking opportunities, that they develop transferable skills like writing and leadership, and that they have internship experience in their desired path.
And though it may require time and funding to track career paths of students after they graduate, there’s a surefire way to assess the path they took in graduate school: don’t let them leave until they complete an exit survey. “We don’t let them upload their dissertation until they do,” Calarco said.