UC Berkeley study sheds light on where PhDs end up a decade after they get their degree

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- Despite tales of English PhDs driving taxis and science PhDs endlessly bouncing from one postdoctoral position to another, a new survey by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that most of those who earn a PhD 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 at UC Berkeley and dean of the Graduate Division. Cerny and Dr. 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."

Nevertheless, the results, reported in two articles being published this month, 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. The interviewees represent 57 percent of all those who received their degrees in these fields in the United States between July 1, 1982, and June 30, 1985. They hailed from 61 universities around the country.

The survey, funded by the Mellon Foundation with some assistance from the National Science Foundation, 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 PhD and a career position.

The response rate was high: sixty-six percent of all domestic PhDs asked to participate in the survey did so, as did 52 percent of those who held foreign passports at the time their degrees were granted.

"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 summarize their findings regarding the role of postdoctoral appointments of PhDs in biochemistry and mathematics in the Sept. 3 issue of Science.

Their findings about English PhDs will be reported in a special September edition of The Communicator, a publication of the Council of Graduate Schools. The National Science Foundation plans to publish an NSF Issue Brief by Nerad and Cerny summarizing the study's key results, while the full study will be published next year in a book, "PhDs -10 Years Later."

"We know relatively little about the process by which PhDs settle down into a career, so planning for the next generation is difficult," Nerad said. "What kind of jobs do they get, how long does it take them to settle down, and how often do they change jobs?"

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

"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.

"Many think the sole purpose of a PhD education is to train professors, but this has never been the case in the history of doctoral education. 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 PhD 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 PhD 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 PhD training experience in teamwork, interdisciplinary research and the development of managerial skills," Cerny said. "Plus, PhDs and postdocs both 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. In the survey, Nerad and Cerny found that such positions are a short and rarely used option in four of the six fields. While 31 percent of those with a PhD 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.

Biochemistry PhDs, however, averaged 3.8 years in one or more postdoctoral positions before moving on to a career. A few biochemistry PhDs spent up to nine years in five separate postdocs.

Such lengthy postdocs delay the move to a tenure-track position and may be unnecessary from an educational point of view, the authors argue. Because of these quasi-mandatory postdocs, Nerad said, biochemists had the largest proportion of untenured faculty 10 to 13 years after the PhD.

"In the life sciences and many of the physical sciences, the postdoc now is nearly obligatory. It has taken on a different function in the past few decades - it has nearly become like a second degree," Nerad said. "Why is this necessary? If you have a well-organized doctoral program plus a two to three year postdoc with good mentors, why do you need five years of postdocs? Our data seem to say that many of these postdocs are in a holding pattern."

"The lengthening of the postdoctoral experience in some disciplines is definitely an issue of concern," agreed Cerny.

In general, the PhD experience was similar for both men and women. However, in mathematics, the surveyors found that for men only, a postdoctoral position made them more likely to obtain a faculty position, and increased their chances of becoming professors at more prestigious universities. More women mathematics PhDs became researchers in the non-academic world.

In part, spousal issues may be the cause, Nerad said. More women than men indicated they chose a postdoc in order to stay with their spouse. And half of all women who were married when they received their PhD in mathematics ended up working in the business, government or nonprofit sectors. Of men married at the time of their PhD, 84 percent became tenured faculty.

"In both mathematics and biochemistry, both sexes do postdocs at the same rate," Nerad said. "However, for women, a good geographic location and a site also suitable for their spouse were as important as professional advancement in choosing a postdoc."


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