March, 2001 issue
vol. 10, no. 3
Students Give Failing Grade to PhD Programs
by Sarah G. Cook
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
10-year figure is 58% in English and 40% (including
non-tenure-track faculty) in biological sciences.
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
most students want a faculty job, the appeal is weaker for women and minorities:
White men 68.0%
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.”
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.
“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
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?
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.
were even less common. Only 28.8% were aware of internship opportunities and of
those, fewer than half felt encouraged to do an internship.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
Service to discipline. Men are more confident and prepared by their
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.
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
Encourage students to use training
Support students who choose non-academic
Involve students in departmental committees.
Review program requirements for relevance to
Ask students about their experience and
listen to them.
What administrators can do:
data on completion rates and career outcomes.
Fund activities to prepare future faculty.
Publicize activities so all students know
resources for students on non-academic careers.
State policies and expectations in writing.
In departments, publish clear program
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.
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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