Updates in Doctoral Ed

Feeding the crazy

Latest from the Thesis Whisperer - January 14, 2015 - 12:26pm

Let me tell you a story about a friend, let’s call him Todd.

Todd used to work in an academic ‘think tank’ run by a famous professor, let’s call him Kenny. Kenny always tasked Todd with a series of high stakes, last minute projects. Todd always delivered on these projects, even though it caused him great stress.

While Kenny was leaning on Todd heavily, he never fully invited Todd into his intellectual circle. By ‘intellectual circle’ I mean the people who collaborated with the think tank or came to its seminars.

Kenny’s colleagues knew Todd was involved in the think tank work, but they didn’t understand exactly what Todd’s role was. Todd learned pretty quickly that if he presumed to talk to these colleagues when Kenny wasn’t around, or send emails to them, he would get the silent treatment. Even urgent requests about pay would get no answer.

I can only guess this silent treatment was Kenny’s way of exerting control. By holding Todd at a distance, and refusing to publicly acknowledge Todd’s contributions, Kenny could preserve the fiction of being a solo genius and avoid the danger of Todd being poached by another colleague.

Todd, being a modest kind of person, assumed he was left out for reasons that had nothing to do with Kenny’s ego. Todd merely assumed he wasn’t good enough. This made Todd paranoid. Eventually every action Kenny took, especially the silences, would drive Todd into a frenzy of self doubt.

This dynamic is best demonstrated in the story Todd tells about the photocopier.

While waiting for a print job to come through Todd flicked idly through another document which Kenny had left on the photocopier’s tray. It was useful to the work Todd was doing. Todd respected the office rules about not interfering with other’s printouts, so he left it there, but questions and theories about Kenny’s reason for printing it raced through Todd’s mind. Was this a test of some kind? Todd invented increasingly elaborate ideas about what this ‘test’ was about and how he could pass it.

Come Monday Todd was a nervous wreck. On being summoned to Kenny’s office, Todd felt an intense sense of dread. He nearly fainted with relief when the professor merely handed him the document, saying: “sorry – I forgot to give that to you last week”. Todd realised he’d spent three days feeding his own crazy for absolutely no reason. Suffice to say, in the interest of his own mental health Todd didn’t stay in that job much longer.

Silence is the most potent form of communication. Silence is particularly potent when there is an imbalance of power – stated or not.

Think about the last time you waited for your new love interest to call. Mercifully this is about 17 years ago for me, but I still remember the feeling of watching the phone and willing it to ring. After a couple of days I would come to the conclusion that I was totally unlovable and would be alone forever. Then they would call and act like nothing had happened because, indeed, nothing had happened! The worries were all in my own head. I fed my own crazy because I had temporarily accorded the man in question power over my emotional state.

Silence in the workplace can have a similar dynamic – affecting one person far more than another. This is because silence between two people can become a void that is quickly filled with all kinds of hopes, desires and theories. Silence on its own doesn’t necessarily let in the crazy, but silence from a powerful person can open the door to crazy like almost nothing else.

Why am I talking at such length about silence? Well, the most common complaint I have from students is lack of feedback from their supervisors. Most supervisors, myself included, need at least a month to give considered feedback on a 10,000 word chapter – sometimes longer. But I often talk to students who are working themselves into a froth of anxiety after only a week.

Most of the time, as the relationship develops, students grow more comfortable with silences, but supervisors need to be aware that they are always in a power hierarchy. Actions, even innocent ones, can be misinterpreted in ways the supervisor may be completely unaware of.

What do you think? Has there been a time when silence from another person has led you into a frenzy of self doubt? What happened and how did you deal with it?

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Where Have All the Ph.D.’s Gone?

Why the Council of Graduate Schools is taking on the challenge of studying job outcomes for doctoral students.

Vital Questions About Tracking Placement Data

This past year, I worked with the American Historical Association on its placement study. We were thrilled at the detail and depth we achieved using publicly available data to track 2,500 history Ph.D.’s who graduated between 1998-2009.

I am a great proponent of comprehensive placement studies because they can help shatter the myth that a tenure-track job is the only successful outcome of a Ph.D. Like many graduate students and Ph.D.’s, I, too, would like to see program-specific placement data.  If we are to reform graduate education, we should do so knowing the outcome of the degrees people already earn. Placement studies can provide the sort of concrete data we need to show the important contribution made to our society by humanists, social scientists, and scientists.

And so, I was excited to learn that the Council of Graduate Schools will undertake a best-practice study of how graduate schools track placement data. Organizations like CGS have a critical role to play in pushing for the collection and publication of accurate, detailed placement data. The council can set standards and guidelines so that placement data can be compared between universities and departments nationwide.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my research on placement rates with several deans, directors of graduate career services, and faculty members who are eager to conduct their own studies. From those conversations, I learned about the many challenges that graduate deans face when they begin to tackle the problem of collecting placement data. Figuring out how to collect accurate data and how to pay for such large-scale studies are but two concerns. Other challenges in data collection arise from bureaucratic inefficiencies at their home institutions that transcend the graduate schools.

At most universities, data about alumni are gathered by different offices—alumni services, individual departments, fund raising—but seldom shared. Before deans begin to collect additional data, they need to know what the university has collected already. That requires buy-in from other top administrators. How do graduate deans encourage alumni services and development to share their alumni database? And once the deans have collected data on the placement rates of Ph.D.’s, where do they store the information, and who updates it? It hardly seems ideal to have placement data stored in an Excel spreadsheet file on Dropbox.

Several deans I spoke with felt that, in conjunction with placement studies, they would need to develop an IT database on a university network so that various groups of people could have access to the information and update it. That requires much more time, a much larger budget, and cooperation with other divisions in the university that may have other priorities.

CGS should make that a central part of its inquiry: Who are the stakeholders at the university—beyond the graduate school and individual academic departments—who need to be won over? What strategies have deans employed to share alumni data with other divisions? Is data sharing across the institution even feasible, and if so, how do we make it a reality?

Most institutions, with limited resources, will need the help and support of faculty members to do a better job of collecting placement data and alumni contact information for their individual departments. In an era of cutbacks and at a time when humanities and social-science departments are being eliminated, some faculty members view the attempt to track placement data as a hostile move by graduate-school administrators. Professors wonder: What are the goals of the graduate school in collecting this data?

Unless administrators across the university believe that there are many viable and valuable career outcomes for Ph.D.’s beyond the professoriate, and unless that message is clearly communicated to academic departments, faculty members won’t want to participate in these placement studies or make their data public.

An equally critical question: What are the attitudes of other senior administrators at the institution toward career options for Ph.D.’s? Those of us who are pushing for this placement data, with the anticipation that it will showcase the value of a graduate degree, would be outraged if these studies were used by campus officials (provosts, presidents, board of trustees) or state legislatures to gut liberal-arts programs and reduce money for graduate education in favor of, say, the business school.

Inevitably, institutional placement studies will show that a smaller number of Ph.D. graduates are in tenure-track positions than faculty or administrators expect. How do deans ensure that placement studies will be used to improve, instead of jettison, graduate education at their institution? We know the benefits of placement data, done correctly and accurately, but we should also be aware of, document, and strategize for, the potential negative fallout.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a company that provides research consulting services for organizations and career coaching for Ph.D. job seekers.  She lives in Denver, Colo.  

3 Things I’ve Learned About Ph.D. Students and Placement

I’ve written about the ins and outs (and quirks) of the academic workplace for The Chronicle for the last five years. So there are some things about finding employment after graduate school that I just know to be true. Most people on the academic job market think landing a tenure-track position is a crapshoot. Many advisers can’t help their students find work outside of academe. And accurate information on Ph.D. placement is hard to come by.

But while doing the reporting for an article about how colleges should—but often don’t—collect Ph.D-placement data, I learned three critical things about graduate students and data on their job placement. Thanks to two dozen conversations I had with current and former sociology Ph.D. students and professors at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, I now know that:

1. There are lots of ways to collect placement data. Some institutions count only tenure-track or visiting-professor positions. At some places, nonacademic employment doesn’t make the cut. Others debate whether it’s best to track placement two or three years after graduation, in hopes that former students will have settled into a “real” job by then. The truth—that an adjunct position is what awaits many new graduates, in the humanities in particular—is apparently too much to put on display. At the end of the day, not all placement data are created equal.

2. Many prospective students don’t even ask about a department’s placement data. This baffled me at first, since I’ve written so much about the tough academic job market. Why wouldn’t students do something as simple as asking questions about where graduates end up working and how long it takes them to get jobs? But then student after student at CUNY told me how they had been more focused on getting into a program in New York City, where they wanted to live. They had also been lured by certain professors and, of course, the right financial package. Yet once the students were admitted, placement information typically still wasn’t on their radar—until a job search loomed. As Zoe Meleo-Erwin, a recent Ph.D. graduate in sociology from the Graduate Center, put it: “There are so many things that are more pressing at the moment. You have to keep your focus on all the mini-hurdles.”

3. For some students, knowing about a program’s spotty placement record wouldn’t make them think twice about enrolling. That’s because it’s human nature for a person to believe that he will be the one who gets a tenure-track job right away at a great college, in a great city, and at great pay. One former sociology Ph.D. at the Graduate Center said that, while applying to graduate schools, she “had this narrative in my mind that I would go to school for seven years and then there would be a job as a professor on the other end for me.” She held a one-year visiting-professor position at a college in New York State before getting hired as a tenure-track professor at a public institution in New England. Still, she said, “I wish somebody had told me the reality. But I don’t know that it would have made any difference to me.”

It’s easy to make the case that the road from Ph.D. program to employment has many of the same pitfalls today as it did 20 or more years ago. But Dean B. Savage, who has collected placement data on nearly 500 sociology Ph.D.’s at the Graduate Center, hopes that soon more colleges will follow his lead, to make the journey easier for students.

Said Mr. Savage, a professor of sociology at Queens College: “The time has come for programs to do this.”

The Ph.D.-Industry Gap

Imagine you’re a brand-new Porsche in 2011. You’re sitting in a dealership, being test-driven by many enamored consumers but never purchased. Later you hear that the 2011 Toyota Camry outsold the Lexus 1.5 to 1, the Cadillac 2 to 1, and the Porsche 10 to 1. You ask yourself: Was it worth being an impressive, expensive car, if no one ever buys you?

That ironic situation is very real for many Ph.D.’s. I faced it myself after getting my master’s and doctorate in computer science from Stanford University, where I built software that revolutionized the study of human movement, became an early expert and core developer of software featured in Scientific American, and was one of four Ph.D.’s chosen from Stanford’s engineering school for a research award.

Having learned after numerous discussions with professors that an academic career wasn’t realistic for my area of focus, I turned my attention to industry. Stanford’s tech-oriented departments drill into their students the idea that they will have no trouble getting a job in industry: The average Ph.D. student gets three job offers.

So I absorbed career advice. I did informational interviews. I received help and guidance from professors, who emphatically reassured me that I could easily get an industry job. I had my résumés submitted and vouched for by employees working in many of the companies where I applied. I prepared hard for interviews. Then the hard truth crashed down on me.

Despite having programmed computers since age 8, I was rejected from about 20 programming jobs. Despite being intimately involved in the management, marketing, user feedback, and design of a widely used software package supported by the National Institutes of Health, and endorsed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, I was unable to land a product-management job. Despite having processed large amounts of data using optimization, statistics, and control theory, my interviews for data-science jobs didn’t pan out either.

I reached out for advice. No one could pinpoint anything I was doing wrong. Professors and industry veterans inferred I must be saying something really crazy to destroy myself in 30-plus interviews: There was “no way” a person with my credentials could be denied so many jobs. However, I had said nothing crazy. My interviews had largely gone smoothly. And I did eventually land a job closely related to my Ph.D. But the opportunity didn’t arise until a year after finishing my doctorate. Before that lucky break, my accomplishments and efforts weren’t paying off.


As a scientist, I had already been gathering data about that question. Each time I was rejected from a job, I asked the companies for reasons. They were often vague, but two patterns emerged: (1) Companies hesitated to hire a Ph.D. with no industry experience (no big surprise) even if they had selected you for an interview and you did well (surprise!). And (2) my Ph.D. background, while impressive, just didn’t fit the profile of a data scientist (whose background is usually in machine learning or statistics), a product manager (Ph.D.’s couldn’t even apply for Google’s Associate Product Manager Program until recently), or a programmer (my experience writing code at a university, even on a product with 47,000 unique downloads, didn’t count as coding “experience”).

It was like being a chameleon and trying to get jobs where you had to be red, blue, or black. Yes, you’re capable of becoming any of those colors, but companies would rather hire animals that already were those specific colors. My unusual Ph.D.—in contrast to my professors’ beliefs—severely limited my career options in industry, despite my software background and my Stanford computer-science degrees (which are widely considered synonymous with wild success in Silicon Valley’s tech scene).

I eventually realized that, like many Ph.D.’s in many other fields, I had fallen into the Ph.D.-industry gap—i.e., the gap between highly specialized Ph.D. training and corporate-world expectations of hiring candidates who are industry friendly. Even in “lucrative” fields like computer science, job postings that say things like “Ph.D. or dropped out of Ph.D. a plus” show just how wide that gap really is.

So we have today’s employment climate. At one end, companies hire whoever can get the job done, like consumers buying reliable, affordable sedans. At the other end, universities, including deeply industry-savvy ones like Stanford, pump out Ph.D.’s who, like luxury cars, are too specialized and expensive for most employers.

I don’t believe that “top” graduates are entitled to jobs, or that going to a “top” university makes you “better” than anyone else, or that I “deserved” an easier job search. However, my story vividly shows that even the powerful “Stanford computer science” label can fail to overcome the industry skepticism of hiring a Ph.D. whose experience seems too academic and not industry friendly enough.

Awareness of that industry perception is alarmingly low: Even the world’s most respected, business-savvy professors can misjudge companies’ valuations of the doctoral degrees they so thoughtfully hand out. We need to talk about that publicly. When taxpayer dollars pay to produce large numbers of Ph.D.’s, only to have them struggle to contribute to the economy, society as a whole loses.

Chand John is a software engineer, entrepreneur, and biomechanist. He will be writing occasionally for the Ph.D. Placement Project blog on nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s, and steps they can take to adjust to the industry job market and workplace.

What Informational Interviews Can Do for You

Ph.D.’s in the early stages of a career transition out of academe express frustration at how difficult it can be to find a nonacademic job. They don’t know what else they can do that will be interesting or where to look for job ads. They spend hours crafting résumés and job letters, send them out, and then never hear anything back. “What am I doing wrong?,” they ask.

My advice: Begin your career transition by setting up informational interviews. For most Ph.D.’s, that is news to them. What is an informational interview? It is pretty much what it sounds like: an opportunity for you, the job seeker, to learn about someone else’s job, organization, or company. It is not—and this is critical—an opportunity for you to ask for a job.

Informational interviews will introduce you, as a Ph.D. job seeker, to career paths you’ve never considered. As people who have been inside academe for upwards of a decade, we often have a limited understanding of the work force. Many of us chose academe because it promised an escape from the perceived dullness of the business world. As such, we have pretty limited imaginations when it comes to nonacademic careers.

Through these interviews, you will build a network of people who can help you land your first job. Most employers prefer to hire people they know or those who were referred by a trusted source. Networking will connect you to people who can recommend you for opportunities. Your new contacts can also give good advice on how to enter your new field: What experience should you acquire while you’re searching for a job? How can you tweak your résumé?

Ph.D.’s are simultaneously overqualified and underexperienced, and, on paper, may not look like a good fit for an entry-level or midlevel position. But when you meet, face to face, with people in an informational interview, you can showcase your talent and highlight your abilities. It may take 20 interviews, but you’ll eventually talk to someone who knows of an opportunity and can put in a good word.

How do you set up informational interviews? One key way is through alumni networks. Your Ph.D. department may not keep accurate lists of alumni (or share that information with students), but you can find them yourself. I obtained a list of recent Ph.D.’s in my department through an alumni database and tracked people through LinkedIn and company Web sites.

Conduct research on organizations and companies in your area, and contact people who work there. In seeking an informational interview, make sure you phrase your e-mail as an opportunity for you to learn, and not as a request for employment. Informational interviews are common, and most people will agree to meet with you.

You are probably already connected to people who can help you. Write a short e-mail that describes your education and background, and the type of work or opportunities you wish to explore, and send it to everyone you know. Someone will know someone who works somewhere who will agree to speak with you.

Within a few months, you will build a network, narrow your job search to a specific industry or field, and (with luck) land a starting position. So save yourself the frustration of applying for jobs online and start speaking directly to people. That is how you’ll get your foot in the door.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small education-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She will be blogging regularly for the Ph.D. Placement Project about nonacademic career issues for Ph.D.’s.

‘The Afternoon I Decided to Leave Academe’–and What Happened Next

Many Ph.D.’s who write about leaving academe knew it was not for them. I envy those people. I enjoyed being an academic, and I loved teaching. As a kid growing up, all I wanted to be was a teacher, and when I entered university, my career goal shifted to being a professor. When I decided to end my quest for a tenure-track job, I told a friend that, some day, I hoped I would enjoy whatever I ended up doing as much as I enjoyed teaching and being a historian.

I will never forget the afternoon I decided to leave academe. I had just learned that I was second in line for a visiting assistant professorship, with a three-year contract and a 3-3 teaching load. We were well into the summer, and this was my last hope of a job for the following year. The pay was less than $40,000 a year; the hiring committee admitted to me that the salary was probably not enough to cover living expenses in the area.

That afternoon I hit the brick wall. I had spent three years on the academic job market and felt further away than ever from my goal. Was I to work yet another year as an adjunct, scraping by, with no promise that the next year would be any better than the previous three?

I phoned my good friend who was facing the same reality. His dream was to be a professor, but, like me, he could not land a job. We had told each other the same piece of advice over and over again: It’s not you; it’s the system. The system is broken. You are not a failure; the system failed you. I told him that day, “I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.” He responded, “I don’t blame you.” The following year, he also left academe.

I cried at the end of the phone call and cried a lot more in the following months. I was angry—at myself, at the system, at the administrators who were cutting tenure-track jobs, at those who’d caused the 2008 economic crash. I kept looking at job boards, trying to find a reason my decision to leave was wrong. I spent days depressed, watching crap TV and drinking cheap wine.

Finally, when I started having success as a research consultant, I turned a corner. No, my consulting career is not the same as being an academic, but I have incorporated into my new profession things I enjoyed about academe: research and writing, leading workshops, and giving presentations. I still feel sad when I look at my history books, or when friends are creating their syllabi for the coming semester. But, over all, I enjoy my new life. People treat me with respect, they value my contributions, and my research is having an immediate impact.

Over the past few years, I have met many Ph.D.’s who are excellent teachers with exciting scholarship and impressive CVs. They, too, can’t find academic jobs. They, too, are looking for a way to move forward professionally, where they can make a living and have their contributions valued. Many, like me, have spent months consumed by grief over the loss of their dreams and fighting a sense of failure. But, as people who earned Ph.D.’s, they are hard-working and too ambitious to stay in a broken system. And they all eventually found new professions that bring them satisfaction.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small education-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She will be blogging regularly for the Ph.D. Placement Project about nonacademic career issues for Ph.D.’s.

Open-Mindedness and the Ph.D. Placement Problem

Alexandra Lord

So far on this blog we’ve been explaining how The Chronicle is going about the challenge of collecting data to achieve the goals of the Ph.D. Placement Project. We’re now opening up the blog to outside voices, to help illustrate the situation faced by many new Ph.D.’s, and in so doing to show what we’re trying to accomplish with the project. The following guest post is by Alexandra Lord, a historian who blogs, among other things, about nonacademic jobs for Ph.D. recipients.

When I began thinking about writing about jobs for the Ph.D. Placement Project blog, I felt a sense of panic. I was uncertain not about what I would say but about the form in which I would say it. As I struggled with this over several days, I realized that I was experiencing a creeping sense of déjà vu. It all reminded me of when I began my first nonacademic job search.

Although I had not been happy in academe, it had the lure of safety and familiarity. Academe offers one of the most clearly defined and straightforward career trajectories possible: teaching assistant, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor. While people occasionally skip a few steps, every job applicant knows the order of those steps and the actions one should take to move on to the next step. The academic job market may be horrific and impossible, but at least you know what you are supposed to do.

When I left academe, I was terrified by the lack of certainty. I hunted for possible role models and was desperate for instructions that would tell me exactly what I needed to do and what I should aspire to do. In some ways, that hunt for clear instructions was not a bad thing. Nonacademic job searches differ from academic job searches in many fundamental and even dramatic ways, and I clearly needed to learn how to apply for nonacademic jobs.

However, I discovered, and am still in the process of discovering, the need to be comfortable with uncertainty. Leaving academe means that a career path will present multiple forks in the road. While that uncertainty can be quite terrifying, it can also be incredibly liberating in the long run. Best of all, it has forced me to be incredibly open-minded—always a good thing when conducting a job search.

In the short term, however, the uncertainty can be overwhelming. With no clear end and a seeming wealth of possible jobs, where do you begin? How do you know what you are qualified to do? Does a Ph.D. in a field such as English or history actually provide you with skills nonacademic employers will value? And if so, how do you market yourself and those skills? What is the “right” job for a nonacademic Ph.D.?

And, most important, just when will you get the job that will enable you to begin paying your rent?

For most of us, academics who have excelled at following the rules, the fact that there are no absolute answers to those questions can be quite terrifying. But being an academic actually has benefits when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. As researchers, most of us have a high comfort level with asking open-ended questions and conducting research that enables us to develop the best answers to those questions.

When viewed as a research problem, a nonacademic job search can and does become both familiar and feasible.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian with the federal government. In her spare time she runs Beyond Academe, a free Web site that helps historians find work outside the academy, and The Ultimate History Project, an online Web journal written by professional historians and aimed at a general audience.

What Associations Have to Say

We’ve been reaching out to various disciplinary organizations to get a better sense of what information on Ph.D. placement is already being collected. Given the reach and resources of those associations, we hoped they might make good starting places in gathering data. We started with a list of about 50 organizations, and so far we’ve received responses from about 30.

It turns out that some, such as the American Historical Association, are already deep into their own efforts to get comprehensive data on the employment prospects of Ph.D.’s. Several groups are doing annual or biennial surveys, and a few are asking questions related to Ph.D. placement, like the American Psychological Association’s biennial Doctorate Employment Survey. (The 2009 results can be found here.) A few survey their members or departments but don’t ask questions about placement.

Of the groups that don’t survey at all, several have said they want information on their graduates’ trajectories but aren’t sure how to start that research. Often those groups have expressed interest in piggybacking on The Chronicle’s efforts, in whatever form they take.

Finally, a handful of groups have said they don’t believe it’s their responsibility to gather or to publish placement data, or don’t think it’s important.

We learned a few things from those conversations:

  • A majority of associations are interested in being involved. They want to know what happens to graduates in their field.
  • While many groups aren’t in direct contact with graduate departments, their membership includes a number of professors who serve as advisers to doctoral students, as well as the doctoral students themselves. One option might be to use those direct membership channels to reach out to the individuals who are seeing the challenges of the job search up close.
  • Associations are concerned about students’ privacy. We’re taking those concerns seriously: Whatever form the project takes, we’ll respect individuals’ information.
  • Disciplinary groups are less likely to keep track of graduates who have left academe to work in industry, government, or nonacademic nonprofit organizations, even if those were the desired careers for large percentages of their graduates. Gathering data on those graduates may require different research techniques. Right now, we’re imagining a database that pulls information from several sources, in order to capture Ph.D.’s at multiple phases of the employment process.

We want to follow up on the interest and willingness to participate that we’ve encountered from many disciplinary organizations. We’re working on a one-page description of the Ph.D. Placement Project that can be distributed to a wide range of disciplinary organizations, and through them to the graduate departments, advisers, and students they’re already in contact with.

If you work for an organization that has data on placement or that would like to get involved with the project, e-mail us.

Whatever form the project takes, we’ll respect individual’s information.”




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We’re Moving on 2 Fronts

The responses to our first job-placement survey have been overwhelming and passionate. Thanks to the more than 2,000 of you who gave us so many thoughtful responses, either through the survey or to our inboxes. You’ve given us a huge head start. Now that we’re entering the second stage of the project, we’ve closed the survey. (If you didn’t get a chance to share your thoughts, please contribute in the comments below, or send us a note.)

As we comb through the information we’ve collected so far, we are seeing that most of the challenges fit into two major categories:

The first is the data itself. Records may be kept by colleges, departments, advisers, or associations, but we have no reason to believe that any given sources are comprehensive, or that their variables line up with data gathered by others. Then there are the records kept in the minds of graduates themselves, a significant number of whom disappear entirely, and will require individualized searching to find.

The second problem is transparency. No matter how diligently data have been captured, few organizations have made the statistics public. (There are a handful of counterexamples, of course: See a roundup here.) The result is that graduate-school applicants have almost no way to compare multiple departments’ placement outcomes, much less compare those outcomes with their desired careers.

On Wednesday we asked readers of our e-mail list whether some form of directory that compared the availability of data—not necessarily job-placement rates themselves—would be useful, and 87 percent of the respondents answered with a fervent “Yes!” (You can still respond to that question, by the way.)

So it seems obvious that our project will have to proceed on two parallel fronts. The first is a data-collection effort, either with a comprehensive database or through targeted, careful sampling. The second is an investigation of public sharing: If information already exists, we need to develop ways to make it accessible and searchable.

To those ends, we’re compiling a list of the disciplinary associations and academic organizations that have data on job-placement rates. Some have already come forward to talk to us, but if you work for an association that has such data, please write to us at phdplacement@chronicle.com. Likewise, contact us if you’re in a department that keeps careful, long-term records of your graduates’ job status.

What do you think of those two angles? Please let us know in the comments.

The Challenges of Gathering Data on Ph.D. Placements

We’ve saved the most complicated—and most interesting—question for our last post on findings from our informal survey for The Chronicle’s Ph.D. Placement Project: “What should we expect will be the most difficult part of gathering reliable data? How would you suggest doing it?”

Here’s what responders thought would be the most challenging:

  • Deciding what counts as an “authoritative” source: Do we gather data from Ph.D.’s themselves? From departments? From advisers? Who is most likely to respond? Both institutions and individuals may have reasons to misreport or hide information, and no one knows how many departments keep or update a comprehensive, ongoing record.

“I suspect that voluntary data collection is inaccurate because people who got the job they wanted will of course be more eager to talk about it. People who are scraping by on adjunct work will naturally be less inclined to tell former mentors and colleagues what they’re up to.”

  • Finding graduates, particularly those who are no longer in academe. Should we also search for students who drop out before earning their doctorate?
  • Maintaining a sufficiently long time frame: To get an accurate placement picture, we’ll need to capture students at all stages, including ABD, adjunct, postdoc, visiting professorship, fellowship, tenure-track, tenured, alt-ac, administrative, nonacademic, and perhaps others. This means we’ll need more than a decade of data for each cohort, as a Ph.D.’s prospects look very different upon graduation and five years later, especially as postdocs and visiting professorships have become a near-standard stop along the way in some disciplines.
  • Privacy concerns:

“Any information you gather would have to be absolutely anonymous. People currently on the job market are in extreme danger of never getting jobs and/or being blacklisted by their recommenders for voicing problems with their former departments’ handling of job placement.”

  • The distinction between departments’ roles and advisers’ roles:

“Job placement relies heavily on the role of the adviser, as well as the institution. … Who coaches students about conference attendance, publication schedules, and other essential professional activities?”

  • Standardizing data across reporting platforms. For instance, some universities use traditional tenure, while others use rolling contracts, which are considered comparable but cannot be labeled “tenure-track.”
  • Personal variation: Applicants make decisions about where to apply based on geographical preferences, family needs, research interests, and other factors, which are either hard or impossible to categorize.

It’s not all bad news, however. Responders also had some good suggestions for how to go about collection:

  • Embed basic tracking requirements in college-accreditation and public-funds opportunities.
  • Codify graduates in every entering cohort in order to capture completion rates and ABD status, in addition to placement: “Maybe there should be a ‘census’ of Ph.D.’s, held at regular intervals (annually? every other year?), with everyone having a unique ID of some kind, so they can be tracked—like migratory birds.”
  • Reach graduates through online career networks such as LinkedIn and Academia.edu, through dissertation databases such as ProQuest, and through alumni networks.
  • Keep as many data points as possible: Varying research specialties, even within small disciplines, can reflect large differences in placement rates.
  • Ask departments to publish rates of success for each graduating class: “Probably, departments can give statistics of the percentage of successful job placements among newly granted Ph.D.’s independent of familiar lists of names and jobs so that there will be no risk of ‘shaming’ those who did not get tenure-track jobs right away.”

Based on all the suggestions, we’ve come up with a couple of different pilot projects that could help us test the effectiveness of various strategies. (For example, many readers suggested using Google and LinkedIn to find graduates’ current employment status: What percentage will be findable this way in practice?) Stay tuned for more on those pilots.

What Were You Told When You Applied?

Many academic departments would get a failing grade if they were evaluated on how much information they provided to prospective graduate students on job placement. In The Chronicle’s informal survey on the topic, we asked, “When you applied to graduate programs, what sort of information, if any, did departments offer you on their job-placement rates?”

More than 1,200 Ph.D.’s responded to the survey, but large numbers had little to report on that question. Here is a representative sampling of the answers from 15 consecutive respondents:

  • “None.”
  • “I don’t recall ever hearing a number for a department’s job-placement rate.”
  • “None.”
  • “Anecdotal evidence of recent placement and a general history of ‘good’ placements were offered on occasion.”
  • “None.”
  • “None.”
  • “Little to none.”
  • “I remember seeing a list of alumni and ‘where they are now’ on the department’s Web site. Other than that, the department didn’t actively offer any information about job-placement rates/outcomes.”
  • “None.”
  • “None.”
  • “None, and I didn’t think to ask.”
  • “Anecdotal, almost universally positive spin.”
  • “None.”
  • “None.”
  • “None, but I didn’t know to ask.”

Respondents who had received some information from departments about their placement rates said the quality of it varied from the helpful (“they published a list of departmental Ph.D. recipients along with the positions they had received”) to the vague (“they said they had a high placement rate” and “good students get good jobs”) to the wildly exaggerated (“we were told that the department had a 100-percent placement rate” and “everyone gets a job”).

Much of the placement information they had received, respondents said, came in the form of “scattered anecdotes,” like these:

  • “The only ‘data’ that was offered to us (or that I remember, anyway) was in our dissertation seminar. Someone hesitatingly asked our senior faculty member what the job-placement rate was for our program. He blithely waved his hand and said, ‘Oh, these days, 50 percent of new Ph.D.’s will land tenure-track jobs. So you just have to be better than half of the applicants in the pool.’ I highly doubt that was true then, and it’s certainly not true now.”
  • “I don’t recall asking. However, once I realized I didn’t want to be a psychology professor, I looked at the Web site and found the information on placement very sparse. Anecdotally I noticed that the only people who still got talked about were people who went on to postdocs or faculty jobs. The others just vanished, as though they had gone on Rumspringa and never returned.”
  • “The Web page of the department listed recent graduates and their current employment, but it wasn’t comprehensive (only listed those with academic jobs).”

Some respondents said more placement information became available after they were enrolled: “I don’t remember any during the application and decision process,” a survey participant wrote, “but after being there we got quite a bit.” Others said the most accurate data came from their advisers: “For me it was more important to know where my adviser’s students ended up going after graduate school, which I gathered through personal communication.”

But many respondents said detailed data about an entire program’s placement record would have been helpful. Said one:

“My program could not offer much insight into how or why some of their candidates succeed while others fail. They, like much of academia, felt there was an element of randomness to the whole process, which no one could quite understand. I always suspected that it was more field-specific than they wanted to admit. … Having more finely honed data, about subfields, not just fields, could make a real difference to early graduate students, as they make decisions about their course of study.”