Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Choosing a career path post-PhD: What do you value?

by Kimberly A. Griffin, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland

This semester, I am teaching my program’s professional seminar for new doctoral students. In addition to introducing these students to a broad survey of the “hot topics” and major areas of study in student affairs and higher education, I’m mindful of the importance of their development as students, researchers, and well-rounded scholars.  But I wonder whether this course, or the others in our curriculum for that matter, really create opportunities for them to think about what and how they’d like to contribute to our field in their own careers.  When do graduate students, in our field and beyond, really have structured opportunities to critically reflect on who they would like to be and what they would like to do?  How do we go beyond panels that present career options and information about various professions to help students make good choices about the next steps they would like to take post-PhD?

For many, career development in the context of a PhD program means training to enter the academy as a faculty member.  However, I have been reading a lot these days about how hard it is for PhDs to get a tenure line faculty job given the current market, increase in the number of adjunct positions, and tight institutional budgets.  In the 1980s, it was a bit easier for PhDs interested in academia to find faculty positions; however, the percentage of graduates in academic positions has declined over time.  In our own field, there are only so many higher education and student affairs graduate programs, and the number of PhDs produced far exceeds the number of available faculty positions posted in a given year.  Schillebeeckx, Maricque, and Lewis highlight the rapid increase in the number of doctorates awarded each year in science and engineering, which is roughly 12 times greater than the number of new faculty positions created.  At the March 2014 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, multiple panels encouraged conversation about the need for a more “malleable PhD” given the imbalance between the number of historians and available faculty positions.

Career development that focuses on academic careers may be inappropriate for another reason: students are expressing less interest in faculty work.  While reports suggest that there are still far more qualified applicants than positions available on most college and university campuses, there is increased attention being focused on the number of graduate students who find academic life unappealing are exploring “alternative” careers, sometimes fairly unrelated to their scholarly training.  While this may not initially appear to be problematic given the lack of available faculty positions, these trends raise critical questions about student career decision-making and the nature of graduate training.  If graduate education has been critiqued for its shortcomings in preparing students for academic careers, what kind of preparation, guidance, and support is being offered for work in other fields, which may in fact be more the norm than “alternative”?

Based on my recent work, the answer would be “not much.” Over the past few years, my research has focused on the career development in graduate and postdoctoral training. I have been working in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Gibbs Jr on a project that examines patterns of career decision-making for a diverse group of doctoral recipients.  We entered the project with a simple question: What factors and forces throughout their training influence how PhDs make decisions about their careers?

Our findings have been surprising, and I know that I have learned a great deal about graduate training, and how we can do a better job of supporting students as they consider their career options.  As we have analyzed the narratives we have collected through focus groups and over 60 individual interviews, we have begun to realize the importance of values in career decision-making and interest.  Values represented what mattered most to our participants; what makes someone passionate about their work and represented the kinds of contributions they wanted to make. We reported that it was ultimately a person’s professional values, not the number of publications someone had, time to degree, or whether or not they had a good mentor, that ultimately determined whether or not they wanted to be professors.

Some participants had wonderful mentors and strong publication records, but felt academia did not allow them to do research that was relevant to people’s lives in a direct enough way or allowed them to make enough of a difference.  Individuals who placed more value on applied research and making immediate change were more likely to express low levels of interest in the academy.  Conversely, some had difficult experiences with mentors and professors and pretty challenging training experiences overall.  However, if they valued the mentoring and training of students in a more inclusive way or felt like being a professor was the only way for them to engage in academic discovery with autonomy and freedom, academia was still their preference.  We do not interpret this to mean that mentoring and climate issues do not matter in terms of retention and the quality of students’ training experiences; they matter a great deal.  However, when it came to articulating career interests and commitments, values appeared to hold great importance.    

This all may seem very simple, but this work has led me to some broader questions about whether and how graduate students think about their career development.  Some spend a lot of time pursuing what they think is the “right” career – the one that is the most popular or lucrative.  Or perhaps the one that will attract the most attention, provide the best opportunity for life-work balance, or will make their parents or mentors proud.  Even more troubling, our research suggests there are many students who rarely have structured opportunities to think about what they value in relation to their work lives and careers at all.  They usually come to the end of their training with more knowledge about the various career options available, but no greater level of clarity in what they would actually like to do.   Therefore, it seems very important that we begin to think not only about what careers students would like to have when they graduate from their doctoral programs and how to apply for those positions, but what they value.

Students can start the process of figuring out what they value by asking themselves some key questions:
1) At the end of your career, what would you ideally have liked to have contributed?
2) What work stimulates you, and what could you do without?
3) In what environments do you work best (structured, flexible, in an office, at home)?
4) How much would you like to engage with students, and in what capacity?
5) What stages of the research and writing process do you enjoy, and what parts present significant challenges for you?

Once students are more clear on their values and interests in a general sense, the process can shift to determining which careers would be the best fit.  Career development strategies often focus on panels and workshops which present a variety of fields and career options; however, faculty, administrators, and institutional leaders must also think differently about what this kind of programming can and should look like.  For example, Fatimah Williams Castro insists that institutions, faculty, and students must take a more active role in learning about non-academic careers, the skills they require, what is needed to make a smooth transition into a workplace distinct from academe, and what networks can be of most use to them in that process.   Further, while it is certainly true that there are career options that are more viable for some fields than others, the work of helping students make meaning of their career interests and values is a responsibility that can be shared across departments, colleges, and institutions more generally.  Structured opportunities for students to engage in this work with support and guidance may create new means for students to develop interests into career goals that reflect their strengths and values.

A PhD offers preparation for careers far beyond academia, and it is important to have well trained scholars who have the ability to understand problems, think critically, conduct research, and generate strategies and solutions.  Yet, how often do we, as a field, intentionally train students to enter the field of their choice and be successful? As higher education researchers, leaders, and policymakers, it is important for members of Division J to understand these trends, examining and addressing them with both solid strategies and scholarship.