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October 13, 2015

New website reveals PhD career paths for Stanford alumni

A new website that tracks the career paths of Stanford PhDs is now available for use by faculty, current students and prospective students. The website reflects the results of a two-year study that showed a great deal of employment diversity among doctoral graduates.

By Kate Chesley

Stanford doctoral graduates' career paths can be traced into a wide variety of fields thanks to a new website developed by the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and the Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support. (Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

A new website is giving the Stanford community a remarkably in-depth understanding about where PhDs go after leaving the Farm.

The website reflects a study completed in 2014 that found the career landscape for people with doctorates is much more varied across the disciplines than assumed and extends far beyond traditional faculty positions at colleges and universities. By studying two groups of alumni – those five and 10 years post-PhD – as well as their initial and current employment, the study also illuminates how career paths may be changing. The data are displayed in a publicly accessible, interactive, graphical website that allows users to drill down into the data by academic field.

The data were collected in a massive study of Stanford PhD employment by the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and the Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support.

The study involved the systematic mining of publicly available, Internet-based information about the careers of 2,420 graduates who earned doctorates either between 2002 and 2004 (10 years post-PhD) or between 2007 and 2009 (five years out). The study identified the initial employment of the two cohorts within one year of graduation and their employment in 2013, considered their "current" employment. Researchers were able to locate public information on current employment data for 81 percent of the 2,420 alumni in the study, as well as initial employment information for 74 percent.

"This is an unprecedented study for us, and the website is a powerful tool that enables anyone to access the results based on what's of most interest," said Patricia Gumport, vice provost for graduate education.

Data goldmine

The data and this new interactive website are a goldmine for faculty, current graduate students and prospective PhD candidates, as well as a model for how such studies are done and rendered, Gumport said.

On the website, users can see initial employment and current employment across the full range of Stanford's doctoral degree programs, sorting into four broad employment sectors – academia, business, government, non-profits – by field of study as well as by department. Users also can see types of positions, job titles, employers and geographic location – and can make comparisons across programs. For alumni employed in the academic sector, the data are subdivided by position type: tenure-line faculty, non-tenure line faculty, postdoctoral scholars and staff. Academic employment can also be disaggregated by institution type, including doctoral granting, master's granting, bachelor's granting or international.

The value of the site becomes clear, Gumport said, when the data are disaggregated by academic field, allowing faculty and students to see how career paths differ by discipline.  So, for instance, 77 percent of humanities alumni were most recently working in the academic sector, in contrast to 10 percent who work in business, government and nonprofits. Forty-six percent of engineering PhDs work in the business sector, as do 40 percent of natural sciences PhDs. The business sector, however, attracted only 15 percent of social science PhDs.

As another example of how extensive the study was, Gumport cites data showing the proportion of alumni who began in postdoctoral positions in academia. That percentage increased markedly in the natural sciences (from 21 to 29 percent across the two cohorts), in the humanities (from 8 to 15 percent) and in the social sciences (from 12 to 16 percent).  However, in the biosciences, where post-doctoral positions have long been seen as the next step after the PhD, data show that members of the more recent cohort took fewer post-doctoral positions in academia, from 41 percent to 31 percent. Instead, they turned to business, government or the nonprofit sector at nearly double the rate of the 10-year cohort, from 21 percent to 39 percent.

Informed decisions

John Boothroyd, professor of microbiology and immunology and associate vice provost of graduate education, said the data allow faculty members to make informed decisions about the content of their doctoral programs and the skills needed by graduates.

"These data have been super-helpful for faculty and staff in the biosciences," he said. "They clearly show something we had suspected but didn't know for sure before this study, which is that our more recent doctoral students are taking their initial positions outside of academia, suggesting a major shift in the careers that PhDs in the life sciences are choosing."

He added, "Having reliable data about what our alums are doing with their degrees is crucial if we are to provide the best training possible to our PhD students and prepare them for a variety of career paths."

The same is true for faculty in the humanities, according to Russell Berman, professor of German and of comparative literature. Berman said STEM PhDs have long been seen as entering the private sector or government positions. While humanities PhDs are still taking academic positions, many are employed in a wide range of jobs outside academia.

"It is very important for today's graduate students to be able to understand the flexibility of the PhD on the job market, just as it is crucial for society to have trained humanists working in many sectors, public, private and non-profit, as well as in higher education."

Gumport said the data also help underscore why Stanford provides resources that support PhDs in whatever career path they choose.

"At Stanford, graduate students now have abundant resources to seek professional development in ways that complement the specialized knowledge and skills in their doctoral programs," Gumport said. "The Graduate Professional Development Framework – also an interactive website – helps students to reflect, self-assess and locate resources to develop competencies in specific domains of interest, including communication, teaching, leadership and management."

Reassuring students

The data on the new website also offer reassurance to current students concerned about career uncertainty in the academic sector, Gumport said.

"Many students are concerned about whether they will find satisfying careers after they complete their doctoral degree. These data show that there are many attractive opportunities within academia, including tenure-track faculty positions, at many types of higher education institutions, as well as jobs in the business, government and nonprofit sectors where they may make meaningful and fulfilling contributions," she said. "Moreover, making visible the range of employers can help students reach out to alumni for guidance."

Melinda Cromie, who earned her PhD in mechanical engineering in 2012 and is currently a postdoctoral scholar in the School of Medicine, said the data revealed to her major trends in her profession.

"I looked at the initial position types among graduates from my own department and saw that, five years ago, more graduates took postdoctoral positions initially compared with graduates 10 years ago," she said.

Cromie added, "It's interesting to have real data to show that my doctoral colleagues are impacting every sector of society. It's going to take every sector working together to tackle the complex, large-scale challenges facing my generation. It's exciting to be part of a Stanford network of leaders in academia, business, government and nonprofits."



Patricia Gumport, Vice Provost for Graduate Education: (650) 723-8110,


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