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3 Things I’ve Learned About Ph.D. Students and Placement

I’ve written about the ins and outs (and quirks) of the academic workplace for The Chronicle for the last five years. So there are some things about finding employment after graduate school that I just know to be true. Most people on the academic job market think landing a tenure-track position is a crapshoot. Many advisers can’t help their students find work outside of academe. And accurate information on Ph.D. placement is hard to come by.

But while doing the reporting for an article about how colleges should—but often don’t—collect Ph.D-placement data, I learned three critical things about graduate students and data on their job placement. Thanks to two dozen conversations I had with current and former sociology Ph.D. students and professors at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, I now know that:

1. There are lots of ways to collect placement data. Some institutions count only tenure-track or visiting-professor positions. At some places, nonacademic employment doesn’t make the cut. Others debate whether it’s best to track placement two or three years after graduation, in hopes that former students will have settled into a “real” job by then. The truth—that an adjunct position is what awaits many new graduates, in the humanities in particular—is apparently too much to put on display. At the end of the day, not all placement data are created equal.

2. Many prospective students don’t even ask about a department’s placement data. This baffled me at first, since I’ve written so much about the tough academic job market. Why wouldn’t students do something as simple as asking questions about where graduates end up working and how long it takes them to get jobs? But then student after student at CUNY told me how they had been more focused on getting into a program in New York City, where they wanted to live. They had also been lured by certain professors and, of course, the right financial package. Yet once the students were admitted, placement information typically still wasn’t on their radar—until a job search loomed. As Zoe Meleo-Erwin, a recent Ph.D. graduate in sociology from the Graduate Center, put it: “There are so many things that are more pressing at the moment. You have to keep your focus on all the mini-hurdles.”

3. For some students, knowing about a program’s spotty placement record wouldn’t make them think twice about enrolling. That’s because it’s human nature for a person to believe that he will be the one who gets a tenure-track job right away at a great college, in a great city, and at great pay. One former sociology Ph.D. at the Graduate Center said that, while applying to graduate schools, she “had this narrative in my mind that I would go to school for seven years and then there would be a job as a professor on the other end for me.” She held a one-year visiting-professor position at a college in New York State before getting hired as a tenure-track professor at a public institution in New England. Still, she said, “I wish somebody had told me the reality. But I don’t know that it would have made any difference to me.”

It’s easy to make the case that the road from Ph.D. program to employment has many of the same pitfalls today as it did 20 or more years ago. But Dean B. Savage, who has collected placement data on nearly 500 sociology Ph.D.’s at the Graduate Center, hopes that soon more colleges will follow his lead, to make the journey easier for students.

Said Mr. Savage, a professor of sociology at Queens College: “The time has come for programs to do this.”

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