Graduate students love to complain about the lack of accurate placement data for students who graduated from their programs. Programs are occasionally accused of only reporting data for students who successfully received tenure-track jobs, and other programs apparently do not have any information on what happened to their graduates. Not surprisingly, this can frustrate students as they try to make a more informed decision about where to pursue graduate studies.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights the work of Dean Savage, a sociologist who has tracked the outcomes of CUNY sociology PhD recipients for decades. His work shows a wide range of paths for CUNY PhDs, many of whom have been successful outside tenure-track jobs. Tracking these students over their lifetimes is certainly a time-consuming job, but it should be much easier to determine the initial placements of doctoral degree recipients.

All students who complete doctoral degrees are required to complete the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which is supported by the National Science Foundation and administered by the National Opinion Research Center. The SED contains questions designed to elicit a whole host of useful information, such as where doctoral degree recipients earned their undergraduate degrees (something which I use in the Washington Monthly college rankings as a measure of research productivity) and information about the broad sector in which the degree recipient will be employed.

The utility of the SED could be improved by clearly asking degree recipients where their next job is located, as well as their job title and academic department. The current survey asks about the broad sector of employment, but the most relevant response for postgraduate plans is “have signed contract or made definite commitment to a “postdoc” or other work. Later questions do ask about the organization where the degree recipient will work, but there is no clear distinction between postdoctoral positions, temporary faculty positions, and tenure-track faculty positions. Additionally, there is no information requested about the department in which the recipient will work.

My proposed changes to the SED are little more than tweaks in the grand scheme of things, but have the potential to provide much better data about where newly minted PhDs take academic or administrative positions. This still wouldn’t fix the lack of data on the substantial numbers of students who do not complete their PhDs, but it’s a start to providing better data at a reasonable cost using an already-existing survey instrument.

Is there anything else we should be asking about the placements of new doctoral recipients?

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

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Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is data manager of the Washington Monthly college guide.