Doctoral program performance

Apr 20 2012 Published by under Postgraduate Training

Thought of the day: if the core faculty of a doctoral program cannot reel off a good thumbnail sketch of their graduate's professional destinations, there is a problem.

Also: A "top" program that cannot point to a healthy and steady number of faculty appointments over last decades....isn't.

19 responses so far

  • bill says:

    Wait, don't your two thoughts conflict a bit? It's bad if faculty can't say where their graduates end up (I assume this relates to recent conversations about being more open to non-academy options), but it's also bad if their graduates don't end up in the usual, expected role of faculty?

    Or do you mean the top program should be able to point to a steady number of appointments *to that program itself*? Then we need either an ever-expanding program (impossible) or a steady turnover. What would drive turnover except retirement, which I would expect to be too slow for "healthy and steady"?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    We had only a masters program. Every few years, we would be attacked by the Graduate School for the structure of our program (What is this structure of which you speak?). We kept track of our graduates, and our defense would be to offer a list of our graduates and what they were doing with their degree. They either had appropriate positions, or were in doctorate programs, either PhD or Professional. Success is a pretty good defense!

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't see a conflict. They should *know* , first and foremost.

    If they have pretensions to being an elite program in their field, that means faculty appointments loom large.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Another point: unless things have changed a lot, graduate program ranking is driven by the scientific reputations of the participating faculty. Trainee outcome is nowhere as important.

  • bill says:

    Trainee outcome is nowhere as important.

    I think this is true. I also think it is stupid.

    Agree 100% that grad outcome should be tracked.

  • Mike_F says:

    "...graduate program ranking is driven by the scientific reputations of the participating faculty. Trainee outcome is nowhere as important..."

    Isn't trainee outcome tightly correlated with the scientific reputations of the faculty?

  • anon says:

    "A "top" program that cannot point to a healthy and steady number of faculty appointments over last decades....isn't."

    Totally disagree. If you are talking about where the PhD graduates end up, this is completely false, and given the current numbers, sexist, or incredibly narrow-minded. Seriously. According to the NIH, which prides itself on gender fairness, about 1/3 of its grants go to women (who presumably hold academic positions). Given that women comprise 50% of PhDs in the biomedical sciences, only a fraction of them go into faculty positions, whereas the majority of male trainees obtain these positions. Getting a tenure track faculty position is and should NOT be a measure of program success. Getting jobs that are appropriate to the trainees' skills is. These jobs can be in the private sector (I happen to know a lot of women who hold high level positions in biotech companies), or public service - federal agency or even political. None of these people who obtain non-academic positions are, in my eyes, failures.

    Please get this idea out of your tiny brain that a tenure-track academic position is THE end-all measure of a successful outcome. As a female scientist, I find it offensive.

  • bill says:

    Anon is getting at my original point; I'm inspired to try again.

    I don't buy the idea that landing more graduates in faculty positions is a measure of success or quality for a training program.

    You write:

    "If they have pretensions to being an elite program in their field, that means faculty appointments loom large."

    Do you mean "this is how the system currently defines elite" or "this is what I think elite means"? Because the system definitely does run that way, but that's one of the things I think needs to change.

  • neuromusic says:

    Isn't trainee outcome tightly correlated with the scientific reputations of the faculty?

    Maybe in the short term (e.g., # or IF of publications during grad school, quality of postdocoral position), but not sure that of the evidence of faculty reputation being a good predictor of career performance of trainees.

  • bsci says:

    I'd add to the first thought: If a department doesn't keep good track of where it's alumni are employed, there is a problem. There is no way to train ones students if you don't know what they do.

    I'll also lean towards DM vs bill and anon. While a department needs to be able to train people for many career options, if it's not giving it's students the skills to be their replacements, it's not elite. An elite program opens the doors to more career options, including faculty positions at research universities.

  • Anon2 says:

    I agree that a graduate program must keep track of its students and have data describing their whereabouts, time to degree, etc. However, I understand that this can be quite difficult. For example, I am affiliated with an umbrella program that covers ~10 departments. The students enter and, in their first year, are affiliated with the program. But then they join a lab and join one of the departments. It becomes easy for the program to lose track of students, especially if the student never participates with the program again and the PI is not good at keeping track of their own graduates. It's unacceptable. The program SHOULD still keep track. But the good people who staff the program office (and they really are good!) are already overwhelmed with other things and people fall through the cracks. I'm always highly disturbed when I see the statistics from the program because there are so many who go unaccounted for that it makes our graduation rates look dismal. I don't think they are so dismal, but I don't know for sure because of the lack of data.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Please get this idea out of your tiny brain that a tenure-track academic position is THE end-all measure of a successful outcome. As a female scientist, I find it offensive.

    Do you mean "this is how the system currently defines elite" or "this is what I think elite means"? Because the system definitely does run that way, but that's one of the things I think needs to change.

    Never did I say it was the only end-all measure of successful outcome. And whether you or I think faculty appointments should have no bearing on the "elite" nature of graduate training, this is emphatically part of how most of academic science views it. You can tilt at windmills if you like, but denying this is so is....denialist.

    Accordingly my point stands. If a supposedly "elite" biomedical graduate training program does not show better than average placement of its graduates into faculty positions.....there is something wrong.

  • bill says:

    No one is denying that the system works that way. I'm just saying it would be better for everyone if it didn't: if there were more room at every level for consideration of non-ivory-tower destinations. I suspect we agree much more than disagree here.

  • bill says:

    What if a training program shows average, or less than average, placement into faculty positions, but at the same time shows better than average *overall* placement rates?

    That is, their graduates go on to get jobs at a higher rate than other programs', but those jobs are not t-t faculty positions.

    Note for the purposes of this question that the following are not jobs: postdoc, adjunct faculty. Those are indentured servitude, which doesn't count. Also doesn't count: flipping burgers, etc. When I say "go on to get jobs" I mean *decent* jobs, where even if the grad school degree isn't directly applicable, the training genuinely helps them to get and to do the job. Patent clerk, wall street dataminer, teacher -- these all qualify.

    Would you call that an elite program? Would you say it was a successful program?

  • drugmonkey says:

    their graduates go on to get jobs at a higher rate than other programs', but those jobs are not t-t faculty positions.

    I think I'd want to see category by category to determine that but yes, we're in broad agreement.

    As one example you could have, say, a DC area institution that preferentially sent PHD's into careers as POs and SROs and policy wonks on the hill or Exec branch. Great jobs in the broader scheme, huge impact on science. but I think I would have to still question whether they were "elite" in the sense of the subfield science....

  • Busy says:

    In my field people really don't track placements that much, but the opinion of certain well-known program certainly took a hit when a blogger pointed out that their last tenured placement in a top 10 institution went back 25 years.

  • Alex says:

    I'm with DM here. I'll be the first to argue that programs need to put more effort into preparing students for things besides TT* jobs, and recognize that placing people into non-academic jobs counts as success if the graduates are professionally satisfied and make productive use of their training. However, there will still be somebody getting a TT job, and if hardly any of them are coming from your program, well, maybe your program isn't "elite." It might be a fine program, but it probably isn't "elite." And that's OK. Not every program can or should place a lot of its people into those 1-in-100 jobs. And if you aren't placing alumni into those 1-job-per-100-applicant positions, well, mathematically you probably aren't elite. You can be a great program without being "elite."

    *And I'll be the first to lambast those who only count TT jobs at R1 schools. There are more TT jobs in academia than are contained in your Doctor of Philosophy programs, Horatio.

  • Dev says:

    The definition of elite is irrelevant for what the goal should be: doing science for the good of the population and society (public and private structures).

    If elitism is associated with the marker of predators (fake) the purpose is defeated.

    What do we have today???? just that, lots of science that somehow is mixed in with a degenerate society.

    Conclusion: some thing is wrong in the structure of society, it all starts with power and it uses the main nodes of economics, warfare, knowledge, and the basics of human nature.

    Fine, got that! the question remains right in front of every ones eyes and everyday life:

    What can be done to fixed this elite problem of the most ridiculously advanced society.

    If you really are intelligent, have higher degrees, from elite programs and schools, reach the conclusion, or truth, or best reasoning: the society is structured wrong and is in the wrong path.

    It won't hold, it really is defeating the purpose of humans, I am not your type.

  • MudraFinger says:

    @Anon2 - "The program SHOULD still keep track. But the good people who staff the program office (and they really are good!) are already overwhelmed with other things and people fall through the cracks."

    I totally agree that training programs should keep track of where their trainees go, but I don't buy your argument for why they don't. If the folks in the training programs had reason and incentive to do so, they would. I surmise that programs that keep track of their graduates do so because they see them as something more than just reagents that get used up while in training, providing labor to their faculty. Programs that don't bother likely don't, at least in part, for the same reason they don't track where their empty reagent containers go when they leave the lab.

    I also agree that it's completely insufficient to track only faculty appointments. One of the only empirical studies of this that I've seen was published last fall, based on where recent UCSF graduates wound up.
    http://www.lifescied.org/content/10/3/239.abstract
    Those data suggest it is a minority of graduate trainees from that institution who are headed for faculty positions.

    Other empirical data were published in a September 28, 2010 NRC report, “A DATA-BASED ASSESSMENT OF RESEARCH-DOCTORATE PROGRAMS IN THE UNITED STATES” Based on data from that publication:

    During the timeframe 2002-2006, Agricultural Sciences produced 1139 PhDs/yr, with 21.3% of those having “definite plans” for an academic job, suggesting 243 annual entrants to the academic job market.
    For the Biological & Health Sciences, comparable figures were 5797 PhDs/yr, 27.2% --> 1577 yearly.
    Engineering - 5494/yr, 12.3% --> 676 yearly
    Humanities – 3966/yr, 46.3% --> 1836 yearly
    Physical science & Math – 6049/yr, 25.9% --> 1567 yearly
    Soc Sci – 5683/yr, 37.5% --> 2131 yearly
    TOTAL: 28128 PhDs/yr produced, of whom 8029/yr had definite plans for an academic career.

    Does anyone know how many entry-level open faculty positions there were across those fields of study per year during that time-frame? Were government and industry creating 20,000 new PhD level positions annually during this same period?

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