January 26, 2001 issue
Section: The Faculty
Survey Points to Mismatch in Doctoral
Ph.D. students aren't trained for the jobs that are
By SCOTT SMALLWOOD
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 last week.
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 in
the summer of 1999. 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
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.
Instead, he suggested creating different types of graduate
degrees and programs that don't focus so heavily on
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
Last week, the foundation announced a new initiative, "the
responsive Ph.D.," that hopes to increase the impact of the
Ph.D. by turning the findings of studies like Ms. Golde's
into concrete reforms. The project aims to promote
practices that encourage students to think in more
interdisciplinary terms in their graduate work and to
pursue careers beyond academe, while also helping
universities attract more minority students to doctoral
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
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
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the graduate
students are trying to do just that by drafting a bill of
rights. One of the provisions is that students will be
informed of the exact requirements for graduation, said
Matthew Beasley, the president of the university's United
Government of Graduate Students.
Even in 2001, graduate school can still be "somewhat
medieval," said Rob Scott, co-chairman of the Graduate
Student Assembly at the University of Texas at Austin.
And calls for specific requirements are not always
"Academics are independent and creative, and there's
some resistance to unnecessary codification of how things
work," said Mr. Scott, an anthropology doctoral student.
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 United States. "Graduate
deans recognized these issues, and many of them across
the country are stepping up to that challenge," Ms. Stewart
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
roles faculty members play, 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
Ana Marie Cox contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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