Pathways Into and Out of the Professoriate: A Study of STEM Doctoral Students' Career Decision-Making at an Elite Research University
CitationShen, Lisa. 2019. Pathways Into and Out of the Professoriate: A Study of STEM Doctoral Students' Career Decision-Making at an Elite Research University. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
AbstractTrends in the academic labor-market indicate that faculty research positions in STEM are on the decline. In 2017, over half the graduating cohort of STEM doctoral students entered careers outside of the academy (NSF, 2017). Yet American doctoral programs continue to train scientists very narrowly. Using the apprenticeship model, faculty train students to follow them into the professoriate, despite the fact that many will not assume these positions. Meanwhile, wide gender gaps favoring men persist at all levels of the tenure-track ladder.
With few exceptions, the majority of research on the career pathways of STEM doctorate holders has focused on documenting the supply and demand mismatch quantitatively. There is less research explaining how students end up in their postgraduate careers, both within and outside of academia. In particular, we lack in-depth examinations of how STEM Ph.D. students navigate the career planning process during doctoral study and why, at the point of Ph.D. completion, the academic career pipeline is so “leaky” for women.
Through interviews with 40 STEM doctoral students at one elite research university, this study investigated the doctoral student socialization experiences associated with different career pathways. I find that the Ph.D. adviser is, for STEM graduate students, one of the most important factors affecting students’ post-graduate career plans, and in particular, their adherence to the academic track.
In an elite university context, students who engaged in non-academic career searches often felt disapproval from their advisers, in spite of the aforementioned labor market trends. Those students who successfully identified non-academic positions by graduation engaged in strategic career exploration processes, including participation in internships and extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, those who pursued more haphazard non-academic job searches typically wound up in fall-back postdoctoral fellowships, remaining in academia by default.
The findings from this study suggest that more attention should be paid to advising in STEM doctoral education, with a focus on improving the adviser selection process and subsequently, communication between adviser-advisee pairs. Additionally, this study points to the important role graduate internships and extracurricular activities play in enabling STEM doctoral students to make informed decisions about their post-graduate careers.
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