January 21st, 2011
How can we track what happens to our graduate students after they compete their programs? That is, what kinds of jobs they get, if they get jobs, and where they end up living? This is a vexing challenge for universities across the planet, with the possible exception of China. Maybe one day everyone will have an implant that sends pertinent information to some central operation, a human GPS—something like a Person Earth map that can record the exact location of a body. But until that inevitability we are working only with anecdotes and hearsay.
Why is it even important to know this information in the first place? Good question, she said. There was a time not so long ago when universities weren’t terribly concerned with knowing whether Alice or Bob got a job in a university or at a cab company. Today’s university is under pressure from government, from the private sector, from the public in general, to account for its spending, to demonstrate it is putting its finances to “good” use, and one obvious way is by measuring post-graduation employment. Traditionally, employment success meant securing a tenure-track job at another university, not at the one from which one had just graduated. Today’s definition extends into respectable work outside the academy. Respectable? By that one could mean work in industry, work at some higher level of corporate management, work running an NGO, work teaching at, say, a community college, although to many that might be less than a successful career path. As I have mentioned before, with less than half and even up to no more than 30% of today’s graduate students ending up in the academy the definition of successful employment must be expanded to describe what our grads are really doing.
The difficult business of tracking our grad students once they have flown the coop was a hot topic at last December’s CGS meetings in Washington, and continues to be a theme for graduate deans everywhere. The only unit actually collecting any data on our grads, although often largely undergrads, is the alumni or development office on our campuses, whose main mission it is to encourage those far flung educated creatures to give back to their alma maters. That’s what the fundraising business is all about: locate the potential donor and hit them with your best shot. Only recently have graduate schools begun questioning why alumni offices aren’t working with us—or vice versa—to collect data on what those potential donors are really doing with their degrees. We are still a long way from integrating our expected goals—money and information.
Some universities in the US actually hold back the official parchment for graduation until their grads have completed an exit survey, indicating what they liked or didn’t like about their graduate programs and where they were going next, whether they had secured employment, or were still looking for work. That seems extreme, although it’s a sure way to start the record-keeping system. It’s quite another challenge keeping up with those grads once they have their parchments framed and hanging on their office or bedroom walls.
Even more difficult and some might say important is keeping track over the long term of all the graduate students who withdraw from their programs. Withdrawing is often a painful experience, and so it is likely that such students would be loathe to keep in touch with the institution that let them down, or that they disappointed. But that information would be useful for so many reasons, not the least of which is what graduate programs can do to improve their own retention rates.
Increasingly, online communities are developing for people who have graduated from specific masters or doctoral programs, so that engineers end up keeping in touch with engineers and philosophers with philosophers and so on (that is, if philosophers use social media). But, so far, these tend to be organically emerging networks, not forced or institutionally driven ones, and therefore it is more difficult to direct them to serve an institutional purpose.
We all know how difficult it is to get people to answer surveys, the rule being that a 10% return rate is considered to be a success. Research also shows us that people tend to inflate their answers in surveys to make them feel or look better. (How else to explain the factoid that Newfoundlanders have more sex than residents of any other Canadian province?) Moreover, one former graduate wrote online that she would never fill out one of those exit surveys because they make her feel like a loser for not having secured professional employment with a PhD in hand. She wrote that she did have a successful career, was happy outside the “tenure track rat race” and that surveys do not address the types of accomplishments or skill sets that are relevant to her career. The survey, and the university that designed it, make her feel like a failure.
This kind of response is dramatic, well worth keeping in mind as we continue to focus on how to gather information from our graduates. If we stopped defining success in narrow, discipline-based terms we might get more and better feedback, and our graduates—and even those who do not make it to the parchment stage—might actually want to keep in touch with us. Surely there needs to be some incentive, some way for them to see themselves reflected positively in the surveys questions we throw at them? Of course, there will always be those who do not want their graduate schools to know what they are doing. As one wrote, “Nanny-state, get off my back.” Fair enough.
I think the best we can do for now is encourage departments to keep track, as some do very well. Knowing what 10% of our students are doing with their degrees would be a good start.