Friday, July 25, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Tracking Doctoral Grads

An occasional correspondent writes:

Recently, I've been thinking about applying to some PhD programs. As
part of my research, I'm trying to get some numbers on the
post-graduation success or lack thereof. This is not reported anywhere
on the Faculty's website and it doesn't look like it has been tracked
by the administration, though they are still looking to see if they
have records. I realize that getting answers out of graduates about
their outcomes (especially if it is negative) is difficult, since they
have little incentive to keep the Faculty updated on their contact
details or help them. I don't want to reduce a PhD program to
employment outcomes but it does seem like that is something important
to track.

How can the tracking improved? Is the present scarcity (for many
Canadian universities anyhow) of information solely due losing touch
with graduates? I very much wish that there was some sort of uniform
reporting mechanism that covered data like this, as it would make one
aspect of the applicant's life a bit easier.

P.S. I know that you have cautioned your readers several times about
pursuing a PhD when the academic job market is so terrible. That's
part of the reason why I want to get a handle on this sort of the

Ah, the fantasy of a uniform statistic...

These things are tough. For example, I have been many things – a freeway-flying adjunct, a full-time professor, a chair, an associate dean, a dean – but have never been a tenure-track professor in my scholarly discipline. (Proprietary U had full-time permanent faculty, but it didn't offer tenure, so there was no tenure track.) If you just count tenure-track positions, I show up in the stats as a washout. I don't consider myself a washout, but depending on how you define the variables, there it is.

In my early years out I used to keep my graduate department updated, until I realized that it wasn't really achieving anything. Maybe I'll drop them a line before the last people who would remember me retire. Or not.

Selection bias is a major issue. I remember the year I got my doctorate, I heard the vice chair of the department proclaim proudly that the department had a 100 percent placement rate. I knew that was crap, since I knew what my peers and I were going through, but that didn't stop him. To this day, I recognize names of former colleagues popping up as leaders in the part-time faculty movement, still trying to land full-time work. And most of the ones who did find their way to the tenure track did at least a few one-year 'visiting' gigs first. But how many of us see fit to call up the department and trumpet our 'failure' to attain goals that, frankly, most of us had internalized pretty completely? What would we gain by doing that?

I don't see anything wrong with choosing a program based in part on its ability to place its graduates. If graduate school is understood as professional school with the profession being academia, that makes sense. In some disciplines, it's probably pretty easy to have a high success rate; in others, any program below the top ten or so is really a shot in the dark. And if you're on the fence about going to grad school, don't go.

If the program won't pay you – tuition remission and some sort of livable stipend – don't go. If it won't commit to funding you beyond, say, the first year, don't go. And if it can't even fake convincing success stories, run for the hills and don't look back.

There are so many ways to define the variable you're looking for – people with livable salaries doing jobs related to their training; people with academic affiliations; people who simply completed the degree; the list goes on. If you define success only as a tenure-track position at a prominent research university, then probably very few programs have much to brag about. But some of us have found other ways to cobble together satisfying lives, even if we show up as washouts.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – how would you define 'success' for a doctoral program?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Dean Dad is bang on.

I'm sure there will be hordes of other commenters, but I'll add a few things myself:

1) People may lie to you regarding time-to-graduation and employability.

2) The faculty will define employability broadly. (Yeah, of course their graduates are *employed*.)

The best info can come from current PhD students. Ask to meet several, and get names of recent graduates. And they might also lie to you. (Not that I'm bitter about that or anything...)

As someone who has a Canadian PhD, I'm quite sure the information you're asking for (tracking by the universities) does not broadly exist. My former school did have (useless) statistics on time-to-graduation and employability-after-graduation. (They did try; I have to give them credit for that.)

The best advice--and I've been saying this since long before I started reading Dean Dad's blog--is to not get a PhD. Anyone even remotely affected by advice like that should stay the heck away from PhD studies; people who don't even flinch *might* be cut out for it.
Given one cannot know what graduate school, or a tenure track position, or tenure, or being a dean, etc., is *like*, until one experiences these things, using them as benchmarks seems crazy.

The real question, which is impossible to answer, is: Are Ph.D.s from a particular program more likely to have a happy and fulfilling life by having completed the program (compared to NOT getting a Ph.D. AND compared to other programs the student could have attended).

Second best question, which may be answerable but the data are not out there: Twenty years down the line, are the Ph.D.s from a particular program happy they spent 4+++ years of their life obtaining the degree.

I have a Ph.D. from a U.S. News top 20 R1 institution and am tenured at a top 20 Liberal Arts College. My Ph.D. program prepared me well for the research demands of my current position, but most of the teaching I had to pick up on my own. I WANTED to be at an institution that values teaching as much as scholarship, yet my mentors likely think I've wasted a career as I could have been at a R1 school. My graduate program may well consider me a failure, yet what matters to me, and should matter to potential students, is that I ended up exactly where I wanted.

If you treat graduate school as a credentialing system, you'll hate it and it won't serve you well.
"If you treat graduate school as a credentialing system, you'll hate it and it won't serve you well."

100% Agreed on that.

I think a good benchmark for success for a PhD program is the quality of a few things, regardless of placement:

-As Dean Dad mentioned, the funding situation. Talk to current grad students. If the financial situation is crappy (well, I didn't have an assistantship last year, but I do this year. Next year? Oh, I don't know about that...), then run, don't walk, away. Any program worth it's salt will spell out (if not on the website, then certainly if you ask point-blank) what a typical funding package will look like for most students ("We usually give 5 years of support, with a TA requirement for x number of years"). Again, I'd be weary of a place that calls it's funding stream "limited" or "extremely competitive.

-The quality of the scholarship being done by the students while they're in the program. Are the students publishing (and where)? Are they applying for, and getting, grants and fellowships? Any school will be happy to share this sort of information with you, and the number, and quality, of, say, fellowship recipients is a good benchmark for the kind of students that the school attracts. People who are really good at landing fellowships (at least, the top ones) are generally pretty good about finding the kind of jobs they want.

- (on the placement front...)Some Universities have a section of their website where they list their PhDs or ABD's currently on the market. This, too, is instructive...

I'm sure more people will ad, but I think it's about what gets done while in the program that generally determines what kind of success (however your define it) recent graduates enjoy...
It's definitely worth a visit if that's feasible/financially possible to get a feel for the place. Talk to current students - do they balk at attending major and/or regional conferences in their own backyard because they are "too busy with classes" to participate in professional activities?

Also, ditto on the financial support. Sometimes the only graduate students a program takes seriously are the ones they fund.

Finally, get the degree because it is what you want to do - many of us (just like Dean Dad) ended up doing quite different things than we originally planned when we returned to school.

And don't let anyone convince you that R1 is the be all, end all of everything. Not everyone in those situations is happy - like every other vocation, you have to find your own way.

There are no guarantees!
A PhD, DM, etc takes a long, long time, and will comsume your every effort, demand your soul, and make you feel guilty when 20 hour days aren't enough. In a science or engineering department, there's a simple indicator to start with -- if they won't fly you out to see the place, the don't want you. If they don't jump at the chance to have you there, they don't want you. If they are stalling, or trying to talk someone else into paying you, they don't want you. An academic program that wants you there will make it absolutely unmistakable, and if they are not making it crystal clear, DO NOT GO THERE.

Most people will never say this clearly enough. The support (emotional, financial, bureaucratic) provided by your department and advisor is critical to finishing a PhD. It's a toss up as to whether having an advisor who will go to bat for you or the money is more important, but without either, you will not finish, let alone find a job.
In my field, there are web sites that pubically track ads/interviews/offers (using announcements and rumors). Looking at a couple of years of data on those gives one a pretty good idea of what schools do well placing their graduates.

Granted, CC's are not listed, but they seem to be pretty comprehensive on 4-year school jobs, even including 1-year gigs.

You might ask around if your own field has similar sites.
@ anonymous 4:20am

I am hoping to use my science PhD from a major R1 (I'm in my 5th year and within striking distance of graduation in the spring) to teach at a liberal arts or community college. I've had this goal from the beginning, and I'm always glad to hear that others are happy with this career path. However I disagree with this statement:

>> If you treat graduate school as a credentialing system, you'll hate it and it won't serve you well.

I have always thought of graduate school as a credentialing system, a means to an end. For me, there have been many times when thinking of the PhD in these terms has helped me stay focused.
We are missing crucial information. Science or Evergreen? Does the writer have a Bx or Mx degree?

How does s/he define "post PhD success?" An Mx can lead to success. Does the writer have any idea what "terrible" means? (The reason the tracking data stink is that the faculty only know the location of the few % who are in R1-type academic positions.)

You can do your own research. If your goal is a faculty position at a particular type of institution, pick a dozen or twenty and look at where their faculty got their degrees. A pattern will likely appear.

You can read random articles in my jobs category and references therein. A new one is due any day now, but the one everyone should think about concerns the types of jobs out there. Most comments are general, but even the details about physics apply to most other fields as well. The numbers for composition and history are radically different at the CC level, but the key detail that the job demand is well below the sort of place they got their degree will still be true.

Dean Dad is wrong about the lack of information out there. Although it is quite old, the National Research Council study published in 1995 has tons of ranking and objective data (like time to PhD) in tables that range from soup (arts and humanities) to nuts (social science). A new study is due this fall (promised Sept 2008). This last link tells you about the methodology used in this and previous studies.

In addition to data like mean time-to-PhD (12 years for history at Columbia, 17 at NYU!) and the %TA support, the data on publication rates and cites will tell you a lot about what you need to do to get a job at some particular quartile level.
Luke, an engineering BS or MS degree (particularly if followed up with a PE license) is a credential. It practically guarantees you a job as an engineer.

A PhD in a science field gives you a chance (maybe a 1/3 chance) at some sort of permanent academic job with the odds depending significantly on where you got your degree and whether you do some of the things I list in Part 4 of my series (and will list in Part 5) right now. How many pubs do you have to serve as a basis for your first research proposal? Do you have 3 to 5 years of teaching experience and/or suitable teaching references for that CC job and do you know what a teaching portfolio is?
an engineering BS or MS degree (particularly if followed up with a PE license) is a credential....a PhD in a science field gives you a chance (maybe a 1/3 chance) at some sort of permanent academic job with the odds depending significantly on where you got your degree

This may be true in the physical sciences but hardly anyone gets an MA / MS in biology anymore. People go straight to Ph.D and then use that to get jobs in biotech or pure teaching gigs (like CCs or small liberal arts colleges). The real training for academic research occurs in the 3-6 years of postdoc work - that work generates the pubs and the independent funding that demonstrates someone will be successful on the academic track. Teaching has increasingly been deemphasized in the grad and postdoc years as it is perceived to interfere with research.
phd programs in philosophy generally keep data on who was placed where, which I think is great, actually, and I wish all departments did that. The only issue there is that they don't necessarily report everyone. They certainly don't track people who didn't finish and in one instance, my husband and I noticed that a friend of ours who did graduate never turned up on the website.

even if they don't report everyone, it is useful to see what kinds of institutions the people who do get jobs end up taking. Are they primarily state schools, community colleges, liberal arts? how well ranked? I think those questions can be answered even with partial data. I attend a (very loosely) denominationally affiliated university and it is remarkable how many of my colleagues have ended up employed by schools (often very loosely, sometimes more closely) affiliated with the same denomination.

I didn't know that coming into the program and I don't know if it would have changed my decision but it might have been a factor.
"If you just count tenure-track positions, I show up in the stats as a washout."

There's no reason they can't break down the stats -- full time TT, part time, full-time non-TT, administration, working in field outside academia, not in field, further schooling, etc., the way law schools do.

There's also no reason they can't lie through their teeth about it, the way law schools do. Mine was particularly notorious for not counting unemployed women graduates, deciding they had "opted to stay home" (regardless of whether they had children, were partnered, etc.) and were therefore NOT actually unemployed.

The most useful statistic *I* found looking at law schools was five-year-out employment -- how many of the graduates are still IN THE LAW in any capacity? And what's the breakdown of where they're at ("major" firms, small firms, non-profits, etc.). A law school that has a 90% placement rate at the majors, but 5 years out half the class isn't even IN the law anymore and most of the other half has left the big firms -- that an important story to know.

(And, sure, a lot of people do go to big firms to get a few years experience and big pay before moving to something they want to do more ... but it's still a very, very educational statistic. And that's why you get it from outside sources, not the schools themselves!)
Someone already said to talk to a current PhD student, which is great advice. Also try and talk to a graduate or two of the program and see if they can fill in the blanks for you.
Don't do it.

Live a fulfilling life with whatever degree you have.

Higher ed is becoming a cesspool of waste and misery.

No amount of research you do NOW will tell you the job situation in 5-7 years.

I learned the hard way...DON'T DO IT!
It all depends upon what you want to do.

If you like higher ed, and would like to be a prof, pick a field that has a shortage of said profs. I suspect you can find a sub area of any professional field that you find absolutely fascinating.

If I had pursued a doctorate in the same field as my 3 prior degrees, I'd probably be waitressing. I saw the handwriting on the wall and jumped fields.

Pursuing a doctoral degree is not for the faint of heart. Unless you're a trust fund kid, it's not cheap either. Pick something you can obsess about AND get paid for as a RA/TA.

And if you decide NOT to, bully for you. There's a certain level of obsessive compulsive behavior that comes in handy, but might screw up the other parts of your life.

I love being a prof at a R1, but it's not for everyone. Particularly, the lag time between publication and impact (2-5 years), can be really disheartening. Though getting paid to research and teach about stuff I obsess about is fabulous.

Good luck!
I jumped ship on adjunct teaching with a PhD in an evergreen discipline and entered nursing. Perhaps in a few years I will be a nurse researcher. If you count using the PhD and earning a comfortable living as being successful (which I do), then I am successful. You can be just as successful with a MX, but you will never know what you are capable of in terms of delaying gratification, stubbornness, depression, jubilation, stress, poverty, and relief like a non-trust fund PhD. does. My advice is don't do it. Get that MX in a field you love and get to the work you love.
My "contrarian" view (again- sorry).

Think about this:

Programs with a good placement record will keep track of placements and brag about them.

If you can't get a straight answer from a department/program, THE REAL ANSWER SUCKS.

One of the reasons I accepted a position at my current university is PRECISELY because "placement data" (at undergrad, MBA, and PhD levels) is a KPI for the school.

Any school that doesn't track placements (and manage programs accordingly) is a bullshit waste of time.

By position, salary, etc.

Sorry. The truth hurts.

What is *your* school doing?

Tracking some b.s. CHE survey numbers?

Get real.

The purpose of the university is to increase the value of it's graduates to society at large.

This is measured by how much "money" (talk to an economist if you don't understand this concept) your graduates make when you are "done" with them.

Man, this really cheeses me off. There are no "emanations from penumbras" at work here. It's really simple. Anyone who tries to muddy the issue is just rationalizing.

Again, my apologies.

[And yes- research money from industry is a KPI also. Research money from government is total BS. All for (again) totally obvious reasons.]
Sorry; got so wrapped up in my own opinion earlier I forgot the following!

If you are pursuing a terminal degree for personal satsfaction or as a hobby; by all means "follow your dream."

I don't mean to personally knock the "dream followers" out there.

Course, I wasn't born in Denmark where I could afford to "follow my dream" on some oil money scholarship . . . or live off some other trust fund deal for that matter.

No sour grapes- sincerely and honestly- but "Why You Are Pursuing a Terminal Degree" is kind of an important question.

Sorry about that.

Once again I seem to have become the thread killer.
(Chiming in late here:) For all the reasons DD mentions, any placement statistics a department does gather are likely to be of dubious merit. So if you're shopping around for doctoral programs, and your goal is to land a TT faculty position, you should be asking what kinds of formal training the department gives ABD students in "self-marketing" and the academic job search. My own doctoral program gave a series of workshops, starting at the beginning of fall semester, on everything from writing the cover letter to what kinds of interview questions to expect to what to wear for your on-campus visit. It was incredibly useful, and while the job market was cruel to my cohort as well, I do think the training gave most of us a leg up. So I would ask the Director of Graduate Studies as well as advanced grad students what kind of formal training the program offers.
Those are good points, Ivory, and don't really contradict my advice to "luke". Finishing a PhD in five years probably means zero teaching experience, which does not bode well for applications to a CC or a SLAC with a teaching emphasis. Ditto for a non-teaching post doc.

My comment about the MS was limited to engineering, where even a BS promises better market options than a PhD in physics with an academic focus (like theory).

But what is the situation in biology? I know that our CC regularly hires MS (with teaching experience) over PhD. I'm sure bio PhDs are in industry and fixed-term research "post docs", but the competition for a teaching gig at a SLAC must be intense. The odds are probably much worse than the 1/3 I worked out for academic jobs in physics today.
Something else to consider is how the department might cook the books to show what it wants to show. When I was working on my master's degree, there were two tracks; one for general linguistics and one for applied linguistics. General was smaller by far, but they always reported that 100% of the general ling folks who applied to PhD programs were accepted. Never any information on the much larger applied folks. Why? Because those folks might be earning PhDs, but might also be doing any one of a number of things. The number of PhD applications was small, so it was ignored. Was this on purpose? My guess is yes. It was clear in the MA program which students received the majority of attention.
I'm chiming in late as well, but I wanted to add something that no one else mentioned. This will be quite field dependent, I'm sure, but are you applying to work with a particular advisor? In my field, who you work with matters a heck of a lot more than the department/program as a whole, and the reputation (and, of course, skill and ability and knowledge) of your advisor will be one of the determining factors in your job search. So I would check out who your potential advisor has worked with in the past 10 years, and see where they have ended up. It could be a little tricky, but there should be a record of at least conference presentations, if not full publications, with student names of them, and then you can look them up. Also, contact the professor directly to ask for a list of recent graduates and what they have been up to.
The thing with phd education administration is that, they produce graduates that are competent to having a career achievement. That's just special.
I don't want to reduce a PhD program to employment outcomes but it does seem like that is something important to track. maths tuition
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