Women in Higher Education

March, 2001 issue

vol. 10, no. 3

pp. 27-28


Students Give Failing Grade to PhD Programs

by Sarah G. Cook

PhD programs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They
       don’t meet students’ needs or expectations, or prepare them for the jobs they’ll hold after graduation.

     University of Wisconsin scientist Dr. Christine Golde has documented student perceptions in a formidable study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. While others have noted flaws in doctoral education, this is the first major study to examine the issue through students’ eyes.

     It began as a class project at Stanford University, where Golde and her fellow grad students wanted to know if others shared their experience. After finishing her PhD and joining the University of Wisconsin faculty as assistant professor in educational administration, she got a $250,000 Pew grant to expand the study.

     Questionnaires went out in the summer and fall of 1999 to graduate students in 11 disciplines at 27 universities and one cross-institutional program. Fields ranged from art history to molecular biology, omitting those designed for non-academic jobs like engineering. The students were all in at least their third year of grad school.

     Golde got replies from 4,114 students, 42.3% of her sample. They showed “a three-way mismatch between student goals, training and actual careers,” according to her report, published in January 2001. It’s made quite a splash in papers from USA Today and the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News. Golde especially enjoys talking with students who call from campus newspapers.

     Wisconsin didn’t renew her faculty contract beyond the fourth year, partially because her work is too applied for the theory-oriented department, she said. She’s now in an academic staff position split between this study and another grant. “The liberating part is, I can put my energy wherever I want,” she told WIHE. She no longer has to defend her study’s theoretical contribution. What she hopes to contribute is “to make the world a better place. That’s where my heart is,” she said.

     Golde ran special data lists to provide gender-specific information exclusively for WIHE.

Will PhDs become professors?

     Most PhD students hope for a faculty career; 63.0% said they’re definitely interested and 24.1% said maybe. Most who said no were in fields like chemistry, with strong connections to industry.

     Probably no more than half the students surveyed will get tenure-track positions. Five years after getting their PhD degree, only a small proportion are in tenure-track positions:

                    Chemistry                    17%

                    Earth sciences              30%

                    Mathematics                 41%

                    Psychology                   16%

                    Sociology                      51%

     The 10-year figure is 58% in English and 40% (including non-tenure-track faculty) in biological sciences.

     Though the academic job shortage gets lots of press, 48.2% of grad students said a faculty position is definitely a realistic goal and another 43.1% said possibly. Naive expectations may keep them from seeking advice about alternative careers.

The diversity dilemma

     While most students want a faculty job, the appeal is weaker for women and minorities:

Women of color      55.5%

White women           60.9%

Men of color            63.7%

White men                68.0%

     A female chemist wrote, “Upon coming to graduate school I knew I wanted to be a professor. During the course of my studies, it has become clear to me that the overhead associated with that is too much for me. Partly these changes in career goals were driven by my desire to have a family in a workable and balanced way. This is not possible (in my view) as a professor.”

     The survey asked how various factors affected a student’s interest in a faculty career. Perceived “ability to raise a family and lead a balanced life” and “geographic restrictions” discouraged more women than men.

                                   Women     Men


          Increase                  31%          31%

          No effect                32%          42%

          Decrease                 37%          26%


          Increase                  18%          17%

          No effect                50%          60%

          Decrease                 32%          22%

     “Behavior of faculty in my program” also seemed to matter more to women. There was no significant gender difference in the influence of “spouse’s/partner’s career.”

     Women expressed the least interest in research university positions, saying they’d rather work at a community college, liberal arts college or comprehensive university. “That has such interesting implications for all these efforts to diversify the professorate, especially at the research universities that will be training the next generation of graduate students. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle,” Golde told WIHE. Women are looking at their professors and saying, “I don’t want to be these people.” The system is driving away the very people who might do the most to humanize it.

     How can research universities attract more women and minority faculty without raising unrealistic expectations? “We don’t really have an answer, but it’s a conversation we need to have,” she said.

Non-academic careers

     Where will PhD recipients apply their craft? If half or more won’t be professors, surely their training should prepare them for alternatives. But does it?

     The subject is practically taboo on campus. More students said they were aware of job search workshops for academic than non-academic jobs; of students aware of such opportunities, nearly twice as many got encouragement to take the workshops oriented toward academic jobs.

     Internships were even less common. Only 28.8% were aware of internship opportunities and of those, fewer than half felt encouraged to do an internship.

     Professors may not even mention the possibility of non-academic careers. Students may fear raising the subject. Golde says it’s time to end the silence. “To study neuroscience and go teach high school is not something shameful that has to be swept under the rug. We really need good scientists teaching in high schools,” she told WIHE.

Research, teaching, service

     How well do PhD programs prepare the half who may become professors? Full-time faculty spend an average of 29 hours a week in activities related to teaching, 11 hours in meetings or other service/administration and 9 hours in research.

     Teaching. “Enjoyment of teaching” tops the list of reasons students want academic jobs, attracting 83.2%. Most who become professors will be in community colleges, liberal arts colleges or comprehensive universities, where teaching will dominate their workload. “I have always considered teaching as my major reason for pursuing an academic degree. I am amazed at how little preparation I am receiving in how to teach,” one student wrote.

     Preparation to teach comes mostly through teaching assistantships, a blend of cheap labor and financial aid. Many students are required to be TAs, yet have no access to a TA training course.

                 TA requirement   TA training

Chemistry                    83.8%                28.4%

Molecular biology      70.8                   30.1

English                         59.6                   79.2

Sociology                    40.4                   59.9

     Workshops on classroom technique don’t prepare students to plan courses or advise students. Where some students reported there’s a teaching development center on campus, others at the same university were unaware of it.

     Service. There’s almost no training for service such as committee work, a major element of faculty jobs. Gender differences emerged, slanting men toward the tasks that bring most rewards and prestige:

     * Campus service. Women are more interested.

     * Community service. Women are more confident, interested and prepared by their program.

     * Service to discipline. Men are more confident and prepared by their program.

     Research. PhD programs focus on research even though it occupies the fewest faculty hours. Most students expressed strong interest in conducting research, publishing results and collaborating in interdisciplinary studies. Women expressed as much interest as men but rated themselves less confident in all three research activities.

     Despite its research emphasis, doctoral education doesn’t train students for key aspects of research. While 65.1% said their programs prepared them well for conducting research, only 42.9% reported good preparation for publishing and only 27.1% for interdisciplinary collaboration.

The apprenticeship model

     PhD students learn from their professors in a kind of feudal apprenticeship. Faculty advisors are their main source of information on many subjects, but they aren’t getting the information they need.

     In professional ethics, the only areas where more than half the students said they were “very clear”—appropriate relations with undergraduates and use of copyrighted material—were those they’d learned from written policies. Ethical points learned from their advisors were murkier.

     A third are dissatisfied with the quantity or quality of time they get with their advisor. They said they get little guidance on how to navigate their programs. They’re confused about informal expectations not spelled out in handbooks and orientations, like how long it should take to get a degree. Nor do they know what they can reasonably hope from their programs. A third said they’re not at all clear how much time they can expect to spend with their advisor. They may be afraid to ask. “What we don’t do is make a lot of these conversations explicit. We need to have these conversations be not dangerous but routine,” Golde told WIHE. Here are some suggestions from the report:

What graduate faculty can do:

     Take advising seriously.

     Discuss complex ethical issues with students.

     Clarify mutual expectations with advisees.

     Give each advisee an annual review.

     Encourage interdisciplinary studies and research.

     Encourage students to use training opportunities.

     Encourage internships.

     Support students who choose non-academic careers.

     Involve students in departmental committees.

     Review program requirements for relevance to educational goals.

     Ask students about their experience and listen to them.

What administrators can do:

     Publish data on completion rates and career outcomes.

     Fund activities to prepare future faculty.

     Publicize activities so all students know about them.

     Provide resources for students on non-academic careers.

     State policies and expectations in writing.

     In departments, publish clear program requirements.

     Reward good advisors


What students can do:

     Act collectively to reduce fear of reprisals.

     Engage faculty to discuss and clarify expectations.

     Tell prospective students of program strengths and weaknesses.

     Mentor new graduate students.

     Share information about nontraditional careers.

     Insist on good advising.


What undergraduate colleges can do:

     Provide college-wide advising and info for seniors considering a PhD.

     Invite PhD alumni to come back and talk to students.


Find the report, more recommendations, related info and contact for Dr. Christine Golde at the Web site: www.phd-survey.org


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