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Science Careers Blog

April 23, 2012

Report Discusses Improving Pathways from Graduate School to Career

Do university programs provide their students the information they need to plot post-degree careers? Anyone familiar with the situation of grad school alumni can provide the answer. Many programs -- often those preparing students for professional or business careers -- do a decent job of equipping their students with realistic job market information. But many other programs -- often those leading to the Ph.D. -- fail to prepare their students for anything but the traditional academic job market, which today yields far fewer career opportunities than the number of doctorates the programs produce. 

Nothing new in those statements, but it's nice to see two prestigious organizations analyze them in a new report that could attract some attention to the issue. Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers, sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, takes a look at the ways graduate students learn about possible careers and how extensive and accurate their knowledge is. (For more coverage, see Science Careers staff writer Michael Price's article in Science Insider.) The report considers the question from the viewpoints of students, employers, and university officials. Despite a few mentions of professional programs such as law or medicine, the document essentially focuses on on arts and sciences graduate programs.

Students' career information before they enter graduate school is often quite scanty, the report finds. During grad school, faculty members are students' main source of career information, although they, too, often have only a limited understanding of career options outside academe. Very few grad students appear to take advantage of the career counseling services at their universities.

Non-academic employers -- particularly those who hire Ph.D.s -- report that "some graduate degree  recipients lack certain...skills necessary for success on the job," especially skills related to "working in a team environment, creating and delivering presentations, business acumen (skills necessary to deliver outcomes on schedule and on budget), project management, and the ability to discuss technical issues with nontechnical individuals." Nothing new there, either.  

Lack of those non-technical skills appears to combine with lack of career information to limit graduate students' ability to take advantage of all the career opportunities potentially open to them. The report finds little "evidence that the personal and financial investments of students in doctoral programs lead to the full range of careers for which students are qualified. ... There is also relatively little information about the extent to which doctoral students seek-or are aware of-career options available to them outside the academy," the report states.

The report does, however, call for serious steps to remedy this situation, such as formally including career skills in graduate programs that do not currently teach them; tracking graduates' careers; providing information about the career choices made by alumni to current students; and helping connect students with alumni. It also calls on funders to modify grants so that they include funding to support professional development programs for students. And it encourages business and educational leaders to work together on "clarifying career pathways for graduate students in key areas of national priority."

Given that the two organizations responsible for the report have major economic stakes in graduate education, it's not surprising that the document argues for larger graduate school enrollments. The report starts with a familiar argument connecting national prosperity, innovation, and graduate education. It does not, however, go all the way to suggesting there exists any shortage of Ph.D.s, which anyone familiar with the academic labor market would recognize as spurious. But the report does include the semi-slippery statement that "between 2010 and 2020, about 2.6 million new and replacement jobs are expected to require an advanced degree. ... The number of jobs requiring a graduate or professional degree is expected to increase by 20%."

I say "slippery" because the cited figure for "advanced" degrees includes professional degrees such as "law, medical, dental, veterinary," while the report as a whole focuses on Ph.D. programs. I say "semi-" because the term "advanced" is defined in a footnote. Demand for health care personnel is indeed expected to rise substantially in the near future as the population ages and the new health care law comes into effect. The Ph.D. population, on the other hand, already considerably surpasses the attractive career opportunities available in many fields. It is not clear, therefore, how much of the projected rise in job opportunities pertains to Ph.D.s, or why an increase in their numbers is needed.

This objection aside, the report provides a lot of interesting and worthwhile information on a topic that has gotten very little attention and deserves a good deal more. Especially suggestive are comments about what some other countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, are doing to help Ph.D.s connect with the broader job market.

Students, the report emphasizes, are not the only ones who need to learn. Universities need to find out the career paths their graduates have followed, let the faculty know, and encourage them to convey that information to students. For people who pride themselves on being the world's best researchers, this shouldn't be too hard a task. All that is needed is the will. Perhaps this report can provide the impetus for the effort.

You can find the report here.

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