Insights and Research on Graduate Education
Volume 8, Number 2April 2019
CGS Research in Brief: Closing Gaps in our Knowledge of PhD Career Pathways: How Well Did a STEM PhD Train Degree Recipients for Their Careers?
 

Hironao Okahana, Enyu Zhou, & Timothy Kinoshita

The vast majority of STEM PhDs work in fields related to their doctoral education and are satisfied with their jobs. According to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Survey of Doctoral Recipients, 92% of employed doctoral scientists and engineers in 2017 held jobs that are closely or somewhat related to their PhDs (NSF, 2019). Using data from the Council of Graduate Schools’ (CGS) PhD Career Pathways project, this brief provides new insight into how STEM PhDs apply their doctoral training in the workforce.

Key Findings:

  • A large majority of survey respondents in various stages of their postdoctoral careers believe that their STEM PhD education prepared them well for their jobs. However, there are some differences between those employed by colleges and universities and those employed elsewhere.
  • Among those who earned their PhDs in Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, or Engineering, fewer graduates who worked outside of the academy felt that their PhD education prepared them extremely well or very well for their current jobs. There was no difference by sector of employment between those who earned a PhD in the Social Sciences and those who earned a PhD in the Behavioral Sciences. (See Table 1)

  • A large majority of survey respondents report that they “definitely” or “probably” would still pursue a PhD in general and in the same field again. Across different STEM broad fields and different PhD cohorts, alumni in both employment sectors were equally likely to say that they would pursue a PhD again. Notable exceptions are for Engineering and Physical & Earth Sciences alumni 15 years out. Although more than a half of them would still pursue PhDs again, fewer graduates in jobs outside of the academy, compared to those working for colleges and universities, indicated that they would definitely or probably do so. (See Table 2)

  • PhD graduates within and outside of academia identify similar job skills and attributes as important. Across different STEM broad fields and employment sectors, there are many similarities in terms of attributes and skills crucial to successfully perform work. Persistence was one of the most important attributes across fields and was particularly important for those who work at colleges and universities. On the other hand, cooperation was particularly important for those working outside the academy. (See Figure 1, Table 3)

Takeaway Points:

  • Together, these results suggest that STEM doctoral education offers relevant training that prepares graduates for jobs inside and outside of the academy. Programs and graduate schools are encouraged to continue to offer training and professional development opportunities that lead graduates to a variety of fulfilling career paths.
  • Although large majorities of Engineering and Physical & Earth Sciences PhDs are satisfied with their PhD preparation for their current jobs, the numbers are significantly lower for those who work outside of the academy. This finding was particularly interesting, since there is a long history of Engineering and Physical Sciences PhDs working in non-academic industries.
  • Furthermore, fewer PhDs in Engineering and Physical & Earth Sciences who work outside of the academy reported they definitely or probably would pursue a PhD in general or in the same field. While the vast majority of these PhD alumni would still pursue their degrees again, the finding suggests room for PhD programs in these fields to incorporate training and professional development opportunities, such as internships, that are more relevant to those who seek careers outside of the academy.

Conversation Starters for PhD Program Improvement:

We encourage graduate schools to engage in campus conversations about STEM PhD careers. Culture change happens incrementally and takes active participation by various stakeholders, including students, faculty, and employers. A good first step is understanding whether and to what extent there are already efforts on your campus to make career diversity of STEM PhDs seen and celebrated. Some of the questions that you may want to ask of your campus colleagues (i.e., graduate school staff, college deans, graduate program directors, etc.), as well as stakeholders include:

  • What kind of professional development opportunities does your institution provide PhD students in STEM fields for their career preparation outside of the academy and for achieving their long-term career goals?
  • What kind of resources and guidance does your institution offer to STEM faculty members, so that they talk to their students about STEM PhD careers with more openness toward opportunities outside of the professoriate?
  • What are your institution and its STEM PhD programs doing to foster partnerships with current and prospective PhD employers?
  • How effective are these approaches and resources in fostering PhD education that leads graduates to a variety of fulfilling career paths? How do you assess the effectiveness of these efforts?

Additional Resources:

Professional Development for STEM Graduate Students. CGS, with support from the National Science Foundation (grant number 1413827), conducted a pilot project that studied the professional development needs of graduate students in STEM fields, and the programs and resources in place to meet those needs.

Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century. A recent consensus study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for, among other recommendations, career exploration and preparation for graduate students. The report calls for STEM graduate students to have opportunities to explore the variety of career opportunities and pathways that STEM graduate degrees open doors for.

Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER). A program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that provides free online training materials for engaging faculty mentors in career and advising for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

About the Data Source: The CGS PhD Career Pathways Project Fall 2017 Alumni Survey was distributed to doctoral degree recipients that were three, eight, or fifteen years out of their PhD in selected programs at 35 participating institutions. Each of the universities administered the survey individually and shared the resulting data with CGS. This analysis is based upon the restricted-use, deidentified, individual-level data file, which includes doctoral degree recipients who reported working for one of five postsecondary sectors (Research University, Master’s/Region University, Liberal Arts College, Community or Two-Year College, and College or University System) in their current job and reporting at least a primary work responsibility. The sample sizes by field and by cohort are as follows: Biological Sciences (3-year, n=409; 8-year, n=262; 15-year, n=120), Engineering (3-year, n=402; 8-year, n=257; 15-year, n=124), Physical & Earth Sciences (3-year, n=387; 8-year, n=227; 15-year, n=139), and Social & Behavioral Sciences (3-year, n=274; 8-year, n=192; 15-year, n=137).

References: National Science Foundation. (2019). Table 27-1. U.S. residing employed doctoral scientists and engineers, by selected demographic and employment-related characteristics and primary or secondary work activity: 2017. Retrieved from https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/doctoratework/2017/html/sdr2017_dst_27-1.html