CAREER OUTCOMES AND RANKINGS
POST DATE April 2, 2007, 12 AM
POSTED BY Peter Fiske
First of all, Happy April Fool’s Day – I think this day should be a nationally recognized holiday for PhDs, not only because so many of the best April Fool’s jokes have come from the ranks of scientists but also because of the lamentable condition many PhD grads find themselves in from an employment standpoint.
But on to the news…
“I wonder why top-ranked research universities DON"T track career outcomes for their graduates? Could it be that that information wouldn't make for good advertisement?”
Eric posted this rhetorical question last week after Geoff went public with his latest and greatest version of the Grad School Rankings guide.
I think this question hits at multiple levels of our discussion so I want to bring it out on stage.
About a decade ago I got a most unusual publication for the Geology Department of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They had tracked down EVERY PhD and Masters graduate back to something like 1955, or tried to, at least. Most of the people from those early years were “whereabouts unknown” – which, in Alaska, isn’t hard. But the department had earnestly tried to contact even those who were not “in the field” anymore, and their profiles were really amazing: an airline pilot, a private investigator, novelist, trapper… it was really eclectic. The publication illustrated something that anyone involved in PhD science education knows: most people who get a PhD eventually leave research science for some other field.
It turns out that quite a bit of data is available on where PhDs end up – through the university alumni relations office. While these data are not publically available, if you have permission, you can pull up the best known addresses and latest employers for every PhD grad in a program, going back as far as they have data. University Alumni offices pay close attention to these data – one of the reasons they send out free alumni magazines it to keep track of where you have gone. If you end up quitting that miserable post-doc at NRL and joining a small start-up like, say, Google, they know it and, years later, when you’re a fat juicy alum to hit up for donations, they find you!
But, getting directly to Eric’s point: departments don’t track grad student outcomes because:
A. they don’t need to (unless they have their own fund-raising efforts – and some do, like my undergraduate Geology Dept. at Princeton University that itself has an endowment that rivals those of many other universities).
B. They don’t really want to know what happens to the 80% or so of their graduates who eventually leave research science.
Academic departments, like individuals, have personae – visions of themselves that they try to project to the rest of the world. And the typical science department at a R1 university has a vision of itself as a producer of outstanding research and outstanding researchers. Nearly all their income (in the form of research grants) comes from the outside world’s acceptance of this persona. The “institutional reputation” factor that makes up so much of the US News and World Report’s program rankings plays off this issue directly. Would UCLA’s Chemistry Department seem a little less spectacular if it were widely known that more than 50% of its PhDs were working outside of research science after 10 years? Would MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department seem a little MORE impressive if 10% of its graduates end up as CEOs of companies (a higher percentage than Harvard Business School)?
Once you start asking this question you immediately start slipping into other intellectual quagmires. What is the “legitimate” employment outcome for a science PhD? What do we really CARE about with respect to outcome data anyway: how many graduate students end up becoming crusty old professors or how many graduates feel their department prepared them well for their future careers? What if every graduate of a program ends up in a high-powered academic job but 75% are miserable and lonely?
In the end, the only metric I can rationalize is whether graduates from the program feel the program satisfied their professional needs. PhD programs strenuously insist they are NOT a “professional degree” like those pitiable MBAs and MDs, but rather something higher, more noble and more pure. But in the end, their graduates end up in one profession or another, and the degree to which those alumni feel their PhD experience prepared them well or not should be, in my mind, of great interest to prospective students to that program.