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.