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Research Shows Satisfaction Among Ph.D. Holders

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
Posted October 13, 1999

Despite tales of English PhDs driving taxis and science PhDs endlessly bouncing from one postdoctoral position to another, a new survey by Berkeley researchers finds that most of those who earn a Ph.D. are relatively satisfied with their career 10 to 13 years later.

"Our study reveals the high level of satisfaction most PhDs hold for their doctoral education and with their employment, whether in academia or in the business, government or non-profit sectors," said Joseph Cerny, vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate Division. Cerny and Maresi Nerad, director of graduate research, were the two principal investigators on the project.

"The fact that more PhDs are employed outside academia than some faculty realize strongly suggests a broadening of departmental attitudes towards the range of jobs that are regarded as successful careers," Cerny said.

Nevertheless, the results, point to problems both in the way PhDs are trained and with the role played by postdoctoral positions, Nerad said.

Nerad, Cerny and their research team surveyed nearly 6,000 PhDs in six disciplines -- biochemistry, mathematics, computer science, electrical engineering, English and political science. They hailed from 61 universities around the country. The survey, focused on the career paths -- including postdoctoral appointments -- of these PhDs in the 10 to 13 years since they obtained their degrees. Postdoctoral positions can bridge the gap between a Ph.D. and a career position.

"The study was meant to give us some empirical background for a discussion that has been going on for a long time in higher education," Nerad said. "Do we have too many PhDs? Are they well trained? Are they satisfied with their doctoral education and subsequent career?

"We had individual stories, but no empirical data. There hadn't been a good study in 15 years."

Cerny and Nerad summarized their findings regarding the role of postdoctoral appointments of PhDs in biochemistry and mathematics in the Sept. 3 issue of Science.

Part of the difficulty of judging the effectiveness of doctoral programs is that academics don't all agree on the goal of a Ph.D.

"Many English PhDs reported that they were made to feel that if they didn't become professors, they were failures," Nerad said.

Yet English PhDs who now work in business, government or the nonprofit sectors are as satisfied overall as those PhDs in academia.

Doctoral programs educate and train students to be professional researchers and teachers in their field, and that field can be business, government and the nonprofit sectors just as well as academia," Nerad said. "If you no longer think of the Ph.D. as a preparation for the professoriate, then we are not training too many PhDs."

In all, Nerad and Cerny found that 53 percent of English PhDs were tenured professors in 1995, although 81 percent wanted to be professors at the time they got their PhDs.

English PhDs held a broad range of jobs outside academia, from writing and editing to research and development, from management to executive work. The survey leaders found no taxi drivers.

Given the range of options open to those with a Ph.D. in English, the authors argue for changes in doctoral programs to help prepare graduates for non-academic positions also.

"It is important to include, with Ph.D. training, experience in teamwork, interdisciplinary research and the development of managerial skills," Cerny said. "Plus, PhDs and postdocs need more career assistance and job placement, as well as improved employment possibilities for dual-career couples."

In all, 64 percent of English PhDs employed in non-academic positions in 1995 said they would do it all over again, versus 82 percent of those employed in academic positions.

Criticisms also have been raised about the role of postdoctoral positions. Nerad and Cerny found that such positions are a rarely used option in four of the six fields. While 31 percent of those with a Ph.D. in mathematics subsequently held a postdoctoral position, as did 86 percent of biochemisty PhDs, fewer than 10 percent of PhDs in the other fields followed the same path.


October 13 - 19, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 10)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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