Graduate School wins grant to study PhD career outcomes

By Alissa Ewer

The University of Wisconsin–Madison Graduate School has been selected to take part in a $2 million multi-institutional grant, aimed at studying PhD career pathways. The Graduate School will be awarded $80,000 to collect data on doctoral alumni and current students, to be used for program improvement.

Understanding PhD Career Pathways for Program Improvement is led by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation. CGS announced today that it has selected 29 institutions to participate in the three-year project, including Texas A&M University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Results will help universities strengthen career support, professional development, and mentoring, as they gain insight into the relationship between doctoral training programs and career outcomes. Data will also demonstrate the wide range of academic and nonacademic jobs held by PhD alumni.

“Career outcomes is a high-profile topic on campus, in the state of Wisconsin as well as across the country, and this project brings the successes of our PhD alumni into the conversation,” explains Graduate School Dean William Karpus, who serves as award principal investigator. “We will better understand the research and economic contributions of our doctoral alumni and how graduate study at UW–Madison led to their success.”

PhD Career PathwaysThe Graduate School will include all 102 of its PhD programs in the Career Pathways study, across the arts, humanities, social, biological, and physical sciences. It plans to track alumni cohorts three, eight, and 15 years past graduation and survey current graduate students at years two and five. The survey begins in the fall of 2017, and CGS intends to publish the first set of results the following fall.

The Graduate School has chosen the University of Wisconsin Survey Center to administer the survey, which includes questions for alumni about why they choose their current jobs, attributes and skills needed for the work, and how well their PhD prepared them. The survey for current students focuses on career aspirations, factors influencing employment decisions, and professional development participation and satisfaction.

“This is an important initiative, and our university will be a major contributor,” states Assistant Dean Marty Gustafson.  “UW–Madison ranks third in the nation for number of PhDs awarded. Our campus alone will survey over 7,000 alumni and 5,000 current students as part of the project.” Gustafson heads academic planning and assessment in the Graduate School and is project manager for the grant.

Findings will shed light on the skills and training valued most in the workforce, and lead to further enhancement of professional development resources at UW–Madison. The newly launched DiscoverPD, which introduces a competencies framework and helps graduate students plan their professional development, is one such resource.

Data will enable prospective and current graduate students to make informed career decisions, like better understanding the value of graduate study and how it prepares them for success in multiple career paths. As a result of the project, faculty mentors can use evidence about training experiences and performance dimensions that are linked to career outcomes, to inform conversations with graduate student advisees.

Traditionally, PhD programs prepared students for the professoriate, but in recent decades, graduate career interests and matching career opportunities have broadened. They now land jobs in industry, non-profits and government sectors, become entrepreneurs and leaders – yet the path to this array of employment outcomes has gone largely unstudied. –William J. Karpus, Dean of the Graduate School

Academic programs and graduate faculty will benefit from study findings as well. The project aims to generate data for assessing learning outcomes and program review, in support of the campus commitment to student learning and high quality academic programs. Analysts will explore relationships between student experience, performance, and career outcomes, as well as the impact of institutional, field of study, and demographic factors.

The grant, to be used by the Graduate School primarily for survey startup expenses, will seed employment tracking for the school. “The value of this grant will extend into the future,” according to Gustafson. “We are making a commitment to gathering data on career outcomes. This evidence can improve our campus’ already strong professional development resources and enable students to make informed choices about the benefits of graduate study.”