Improving Data on PhD Placements

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 today’s 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? Please let me know in the comments section.

The Top of the Ninth

This time of year, my thoughts turn fairly often to baseball. This is especially true this year with my beloved St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs. The familiar sounds of the game’s great announcers are the background of my summer, and are particularly well-suited for listening while working. Today’s lengthy playoff games (three and a half hours for a regular nine-inning game) made me think of George Carlin’s famous dialogue on why he preferred baseball over football. The best part of the dialogue is the following:

“Baseball has no time limit: we don’t know when it’s gonna end – might have extra innings.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death.”

As I work well into an October evening filled with tightly played postseason games, this quote makes me think about graduate school. Enrolling in a PhD program is a lot like playing baseball—there is no rigidly enforced time limit (at least since the end of curfews about three decades ago) and extra innings are unlimited in theory. Few other sports, with the exception of playoff hockey and cricket, have such indeterminate endings.

My journey through graduate school has often felt like an exciting playoff baseball game. Through my five-plus years in graduate school, both in economics and education policy, I have experienced the highest of highs (incredible research opportunities and working with amazing people) and the lowest of lows (scoring below the posted minimum score on an exam). But days like today make me feel like I’m entering the top of the ninth inning of graduate school with a comfortable lead.

Today marked a very exciting day in my time in graduate school. I have spent at least three years working with a research team on a paper examining the effects of a randomly assigned need-based grant program here in Wisconsin. We finally finished the umpteenth rewrite of the paper and sent it off to a very good journal. The paper should be posted on our study’s website in the next few days, but the main punchline is that financial aid does have modest positive effects on students’ persistence through college. To come up with this estimate, we used a pretty nifty econometric strategy of instrumental variables with treatment-by-site interactions; for baseball fans, think of it as advanced sabermetrics.

Additionally, I have been making good progress in applying for assistant professor positions in both education and public policy schools. In working on my application materials, I realize how much I have learned and grown in my time in graduate school. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined what I would be doing today, which is pretty amazing. I won’t know where I will be next year for several months as I approach free agency this spring, but I am looking forward to getting called up to the academic big leagues.