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Survey Points to Mismatch Between Ph.D. Students, Their Programs, and Their Potential Employers

Tuesday, January 16, 2001
By Scott Smallwood

Copyright 2001, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Posted with permission on aas.org. This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

The training that Ph.D. students receive isn't what many of them want, nor does it prepare them for the jobs they eventually take, according to a survey released today. But the survey, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, also found that nearly all of the students were satisfied with their decision to attend graduate school, and more than half wouldn't change their adviser or their dissertation topic.

Many of their complaints centered on the particulars of their education -- from a lack of career advice to unclear requirements. Chris M. Golde, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, directed the survey of more than 4,000 doctoral students at 27 universities. She found a "three-way mismatch" among the purpose of doctoral education, the aspirations of students, and the realities of their careers.

A report based on the survey's findings, "At Cross Purposes: What the Experiences of Today's Doctoral Students Reveal about Doctoral Education," is available on the Web (http://www.phd-survey.org).

Two-thirds of the Ph.D. students surveyed said they definitely wanted to become full-time, tenure-track faculty members, while a quarter of them said they may be interested in such posts -- even though in most fields no more than half of the students will ever realize that goal. At the same time, more than half of the students said they're not prepared for the various activities that most faculty members spend their time doing, especially teaching.

The final part of the mismatch is that students are less able to learn about nonacademic careers and are often not encouraged to explore such options. "A lot of departments unwittingly participate in making faculty look like the only option," Ms. Golde said. "Look at their literature. It says, 'Some of our more illustrious alumni are at Wisconsin, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.' Not, 'Of our last 30 graduates, here are the 30 things they are doing.' No wonder incoming students are not realistic. Of course, how much of that is being misinformed, and how much is being 22 and being invincible?"

John V. Lombardi, a professor of history at the University of Florida, agrees that there is a mismatch between Ph.D. training, the expectations of doctoral students, and the academic job market. "We have one degree that has a purpose, and we have a whole bunch of jobs where people ask for the degree," he said. "So you've got a mismatch in what they want in a credential and the skills they want to have."

But Mr. Lombardi, who previously served as president of the University of Florida, has been an outspoken critic of turning faculty members into career-placement gurus. "They're not experts in how to place Ph.D.'s in banking, but it's not clear that that's the responsibility of the Ph.D. program." Instead, he suggested creating different types of graduate degrees and programs that don't focus so heavily on research.

Robert Weisbuch, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, said he believes that most faculty members are open to change and willing to think about opportunities for their graduate students beyond academe. The survey, he said, will give them hard data to consider."I think it's a kind of an alert in that it provides some evidence of how it feels to students," Mr. Weisbuch said of the survey. "It's not the ultimate bottom line. It's an important perspective, but it's not the only perspective."

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation has been a strong proponent of encouraging academics, especially in the humanities, to consider opportunities beyond academe. Such a shift would help more than just graduate students, Mr. Weisbuch said. "This isn't just an issue of, Isn't it too bad graduate students aren't given information that would help them?" he said. "It's about what the culture is losing from not taking advantage of these graduates."

Also highlighted in the survey was the widely held student perception that doctoral education is "unnecessarily mysterious," said Ms. Golde. Some are unclear about how their course work applies, how much time they will spend with their adviser, or who will pay for their dissertation work.

Less than half of the students, who were all in at least their third year of graduate school, reported that the criteria for earning a doctorate were "very clear" to them. And that number was even lower in some disciplines. For instance, just one of every four chemistry students said the requirements were very clear to them. At the same time, Ms. Golde stresses in the report, students have to take responsibility for their own education. That means asking specific questions and demanding clear expectations.

Debra Stewart, the president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said she was heartened by the report because many of the ideas in it are part of a "quiet revolution" in graduate schools across the nation. "Graduate deans recognized these issues, and many of them across the country are stepping up to that challenge," Ms. Stewart said.

She pointed out that for the last decade graduate schools have been trying to confront worries that not enough attention was being given to preparing students for all the jobs faculty members must perform, especially teaching. Preparing Future Faculty, an effort sponsored in part by the Council of Graduate Schools, now includes 295 institutions and offers doctoral students a chance to observe faculty responsibilities at a variety of academic settings.

Ana Marie Cox contributed to this article.

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