What Can You Be with a Duke Ph.D.?

 December 7, 2017

Duke PhDs across the United States

A national conversation about career outcomes for PhDs has been evolving over the past decade. While organizations such as the Graduate Career Consortium, which formed in 1989, have advocated for systematic tracking of PhD career outcomes for many years, and the National Science Foundation has been tracking STEM doctorates throughout their post-graduation careers in the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, information on the career outcomes for PhDs from particular institutions was often limited. With the 2012 publication of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report, the National Institutes of Health focused on the disparities between PhD training in the biomedical sciences, designed to prepare students for careers as faculty at research-focused institutions, and PhD career outcomes, which were much broader. (The American Society for Cell Biology produced a fantastic infographic representing this disparity.) The conversation gained momentum with the Chronicle of Higher Education’s PhD Placement Project starting in 2013, when 2,300 PhDs from across the country responded to the Chronicle’s survey about career outcomes.

By this time, increasing numbers of graduate students, postdocs, administrators, and faculty members were recognizing that the tenure-track job market was not recovering from the Great Recession in the way many had hoped. State legislatures were not restoring higher education funding to pre-2008 levels on a per-student basis; the numbers of contingent faculty as a percentage of total faculty continued to grow, while the number of tenure-track faculty positions remained steady or decreased, particularly in relation to increasing numbers of PhDs graduating. At the same time, many PhD students were starting to change their career aspirations to seek broader options beyond the tenure track, for a variety of reasons.

Several initiatives to collect data began. The Council of Graduate Schools published the report Understanding PhD Career Pathways for Program Improvement. The Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association began collecting and reporting PhD career outcomes data (an important complement to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, which no longer collects data for the humanities or many social sciences). The Chronicle of Higher Education introduced the JobTracker tool, which provided the first national picture of who was landing tenure-track jobs in 11 disciplines. Here at Duke, The Graduate School hosted talks for faculty and graduate students by Maren Wood, the lead researcher on both the AHA study and the JobTracker tool, in 2013 and 2015, to sustain the conversation on campus. And starting in fall 2017, the Council of Graduate Schools began providing funding for 28 institutions across the country to begin collecting data on their PhD alumni.

The Graduate School remained a national leader throughout this period, collecting and publishing data on PhD career outcomes. Thanks to the diligent efforts of my colleagues Francisco Ramos, Assistant Dean for Evaluation and Assessment, and Regina Nowicki de Guerra, Data Analyst, who have spent the past two years completely rethinking the way Duke presents these data, Duke’s students, faculty, and alumni can benefit from a new presentation of PhD career outcomes data that reflects the impact of these national conversations. By presenting information on the current status of PhD alumni from the past 15 years, the website allows filtering of career outcomes data by disciplinary division or even departments and programs. Using the “Academic Status” tab, you can also view the current status of those alumni in faculty or postdoc positions, to answer questions such as, “How long do PhDs in my discipline generally spend in a postdoc before they land a tenure-track job?” or “How many alumni from each 5-year cohort have earned tenure?” And you can see where Duke PhDs land around the world. (We project that master's career outcomes will be available in fall 2018.)

Explore the Data





Duke Ph.D. outcomes by division


These data become a new resource for current (and prospective) PhD students who are considering their career options. Some of you have already found updated data on individual alumni from your department or program’s website; the best such examples list every single alum to fully display the diversity of career paths followed. Others of you have found data on individual alumni from other sources, such as the Duke Alumni Network or LinkedIn’s alumni tool.

One of the most important takeaways from these data is the story they present about alumni success in a wide array of fields. While you can read individual alumni success stories on this blog, it can also be helpful to see how those stories fit into patterns of career outcomes. It’s important to note, too, that Duke PhDs experience success in many different professional paths. Contrary to messages that you may hear implicitly or explicitly, a job beyond the tenure-track is not a consolation prize or a failure; in fact, in many disciplines, it is the first choice. No matter what your desired career path as a PhD student, you’re in good company; these data demonstrate that Duke has alumni who have tread that path before you. And they are likely eager to help: whether alums have navigated a challenging tenure-track job market with success; aimed to work in industry, government, or nonprofit; or started their own businesses as entrepreneurs, they have advice, perspective, and contacts that they may be willing to share. That information can be yours for the asking.

As you wind up the end of the semester and prepare to enjoy the winter break, I encourage you to take advantage of your travels and a little downtime to connect with an alum and learn more about his or her career journey. Leverage the Career Center’s resources on using LinkedIn and the Duke Alumni Network to identify an alum of interest, and conduct an informational interview using this detailed guide compiled by your colleague Erika Moore. You can even write up that interview for this blog (or find a list of alums who have already expressed their willingness to be interviewed).

However you choose to move forward along your own professional path, The Graduate School looks forward to celebrating and publishing your career success story.


Postscript: A week after this post published, Duke University joined eight other universities and one research institute in announcing the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science. Coalition members commit to collecting and publishing data using common standards on multiple dimensions of the biomedical sciences PhD experience, including admissions, time-to-degree, demographic data on enrollees, time spent in postdocs, and career outcomes for both PhD students and postdocs. See the full announcement in Science.


Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D.
Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D.

Assistant Dean, Graduate Student Professional Development

Melissa ensures that all Graduate School students can identify and develop transferable skills to prepare them for the full range of career opportunities open to master's- and Ph.D.-prepared professionals. She is Managing Editor of the blog.