UW Today

This is an archived article.

February 6, 2003

Survey, forum explore career paths after grad school

News and Information

The UW Graduate School has recently completed research on what skills employers expect in their employees with doctoral degrees — and which valued skills are not commonly acquired in doctoral programs.

The results will be discussed by UW doctoral alumni from the business world and academic institutions at a quarterly forum sponsored by the Graduate School and the Center for Instructional Development and Research (CIDR). Scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25 in the Walker-Ames Room at Kane Hall, the forum is titled, “What Do Employers Want in a Ph.D.? UW Alums Respond.”

The survey, conducted as part of the “Re-envisioning the Ph.D.” project, consisted of questionnaires and follow-up interviews with recent UW doctoral graduates who live in the Puget Sound region. More than 1,300 individuals were surveyed, with a 37 percent response

One of the findings that goes against conventional wisdom is that doctoral graduates are eager to remain connected to the University. More than 200 alumni returned post cards indicating they would volunteer their time to help current students, by serving as mentors, seminar speakers, or helping to arrange internships.

“This finding explodes the notion that only undergraduates have a commitment to their institutions,” says Jody Nyquist, associate dean of the Graduate School and principal investigator on the “Re-envisioning” project. “We have a tremendous resource right in our region that we can use to aid in the training of our current students. These people want to stay connected to their graduate university.”

The Feb. 25 forum, which is intended for faculty as well as graduate students, will provide information and discussion on how people pursue career paths that do not involve academic appointments at research universities and how faculty can best advise students whose career interests differ from their own.

“We believe that creating partnerships with potential employers is one way to provide doctoral students with the kinds of information and experience that they need,” Nyquist says. “There’s no reason to expect faculty to have all the knowledge about employment possibilities at their fingertips.”

As surveys have shown, the majority of graduates from doctoral programs do not end up working at research universities. Most who stay in higher education serve as faculty at institutions where the job description of faculty is much different than that of their mentors at the UW.

The survey asked graduates which kinds of professional development activities were provided, which were particularly helpful, and which ones, had they been available, would have better prepared them for their current employment. “This was an opportunity for our recent graduates (1995 through 2001) who live in the region to reflect on what relevant professional development experiences they had and retrospectively what they really needed for career preparation,” says Diane Rogers, project manager.

Fewer than half (45 percent) of the respondents were employed in some type of academic institution. The remaining 50 percent were equally divided between jobs in business, and employment with nonprofits, government, medical facilities or self-employment.

While respondents were still enthusiastic about the field they had entered and agreed that a Ph.D. had made a considerable difference in their work, they had mixed reactions to their professional development experience. In particular, leadership training, resume and vitae preparation, internships, and training in the civic uses of scholarship were seldom provided to UW doctoral students — although many say that training would have been helpful in their current work.

“What we’re finding,” Nyquist says, “is that the deep analytical research skills that are the core of doctoral education are of course essential, but they are not sufficient for many careers in our society. People who are successful are telling us they need additional skills. So how do we strike a balance? We don’t want to dilute the research skills, but we also don’t want students to graduate without the other kinds of experiences they are likely to need.”

The role of faculty will continue to be central, even when the student is planning what some in academia may consider a “nontraditional” career, Nyquist says. “We know that mentoring can be improved. The current attrition rate for doctoral students is about 50 percent nationally, which many believe represents a significant waste of human potential. The Graduate School is developing handbooks for both mentors and mentees in part to deal with this issue, so that students know what kinds of services are available and so that faculty can be aware of the ways in which they can help and advise their students. And we need to find innovative ways of incorporating nonacademic partners into the educational process when it’s appropriate. Beginning with our enthusiastic alumni may be one way to proceed.”

The “Re-envisioning” Web site, www.grad.washington.edu/envision, provides a wealth of information and resources for doctoral students, including complete results from the Puget Sound alumni survey. It also contains a series of vignettes from recent graduates, explaining how they found their career niche and containing advice (and encouragement) for current students.

The Feb. 25 workshop will have two panels. One features UW graduates who are working in academic institutions but not research universities. For example, Jean Hernandez, who has a doctorate in education, is a vice president at Cascadia Community College, while Kristina Peterson, whose degree is in analytical chemistry, teaches science and math at Lakeside School.

The other panel focuses on graduates now working in business and industry. Panel members include Scott Thielman, who studied mechanical engineering and is a vice president at Product Creation Studio and Diana Pallais, who uses her degree in political science as a geopolitical program manager at Microsoft.

To RSVP for the forum, send a message with your name and department to: rsvp@cidr.washington.edu.

Nyquist says there is at least one lesson to be taken from the survey: “We should encourage students to think about what they intend to do with their degree and help them broaden their training accordingly.”