SUMMARY OF RESPONSES TO SURVEY
ON INFORMATION NEEDS
In gathering data for this study, the committee asked scientists and engineers who have recently completed graduate degrees to describe the information they feel is necessary for students to make sound decisions about graduate education. We asked three questions about each of several topics:
· "What do you know today that you wish you knew when you were a student?"
· "What are the top 8-10 key areas that students need to know about in order to make academic and career decisions?"
· "When do you think students need this information?"
We found the responses to the questions interesting enough to warrant the detailed summary offered below. One surprising result was that students did not desire career placement information as much as career guidance information. They also have a strong interest in information on the graduate education process itself. As a result, the committee may consider developing a document to provide such guidance.
On the topic of the graduate education process, students need to know more about:
· The focus of graduate education. In particular, students should use research to "train the mind" rather than simply to acquire techniques used in the "real world."
· The chronology of a PhD program, and what is required at each step.
· The differences between careers in specific subfields (e.g., astrophysics, plasma physics, particle physics). Which are the 'successful' fields of research? Which offer the best job opportunities?
· The extent to which one should narrowly specialize within a particular subfield. For some positions (e.g., post-doctoral positions) and fields, specialization is considered an asset. For others (e.g., industry positions) it is considered a liability.
· Alternative areas of study beyond pure science (students need to be assured that alternative areas are worthy).
· Maturity as an asset in graduate school. Although the "traditional" path is to enter graduate school directly from a bachelor's degree program, a year or two of experience allows the student to mature.
· The political nature of science. Graduate school is more than classes. It is: choosing an adviser, defining a thesis project, giving seminars on your subject, networking, and many more activities which require "people skills." Students need to understand in detail how advisers have influence over a student's future.
· The importance of research: Students should know that they will be evaluated in terms of their research productivity as a graduate student and as a postdoctorate.
· Developing a successful grant may take as much effort as completing a master's thesis.
· The importance of student funding as a criterion for judging the quality level of a program.
· The importance of the difference between state universities and private universities in regard to their treatment of foreign students.
· Alternatives to an American PhD that can be pursued abroad. For example, in the British system, a graduate degree requires only a thesis (no classwork) and has a typical time-to-degree of 3 years.
CAREER GUIDANCE INFORMATION
· The importance of working in a field before making the decision to enter that field. For example, bright young college students who become technicians in an area learn a great deal about professional jobs in that area as well as inside information on how the field operates.
· The importance of the university one attends and the standing of one's faculty adviser (the "prestige factor") if one plans to go into academia or research.
· The difficulty of obtaining and retaining tenured faculty positions.
· The typical career structure in science and the range of differences, versus stereotypes portrayed in the media. Some jobs are "high-paying and wonderful"; others are "slave labor."
· The potential to successfully advance in a career as an academic or industrial scientist. What are the attrition rates between graduate school and tenure?
· The sectors that employ scientists in given fields and subfields, and the average age of scientists in those areas.
· A realistic comparison between careers in science and careers requiring other advanced degrees, such as an M.D., J.D., or MBA.
· The variance in salaries and competition levels among fields and subfields.
· The importance of seeking career information from academics, industrial scientists, and others with nonacademic careers instead of relying only on universities to provide such information.
· Acknowledgement that the employment market for scientists and engineers upon graduation is unpredictable. Many students assume that positions will be available when needed. There are no such guarantees.
· Students would benefit from knowing how a career evolves beyond the 'first job'. Departments could maintain a list of the career paths of their graduates. (Descriptions of career paths could remain anonymous.)
· An overview of the working world in a given field. What are the opportunities, expectations, pressures, and rewards; how do employers view and treat their employees.
· Quality information and discussion forums for young scientists made available on the Internet to balance the advice they receive from senior scientists.
· The counterintuitive concept that earning a PhD is considered by some to "overqualify" a person for many types of positions (e.g., performing technical work that does not require research skills). Sometimes one is more employable with a bachelor's or master's degree than with a PhD.
· Some potential employers, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, do not generally hire permanent employees through normal procedures. One must first win a very prestigious award - the National Research Council post-doctoral fellowship before being considered for permanent employment.
· Most industry employers do not advertise openings for scientists and engineers at the PhD level.
To the question "What are the top 8-10 key variables that students need access to in order to make graduate education decisions?" there was no unanimity of responses. The most common answers were:
· A realistic view and recent history of the job market;
· An understanding of the funding situation in science and engineering as a function of scientific discipline, age, race, sex, geography, and time since degree.
The remaining responses, as with the first question, fell under the two broad categories of program information and employment information.
(Note: All of the following items will vary by field and subfield.)
- Funding profiles and researcher population growth.
- Length of time-to-degree and time to first permanent position.
- Rate of retention from entry into the graduate program to degree completion.
- Frank assessments, 1: Opinions about available schools (including information on quality, cost, location, and research facilities) from students' points of view.
- Frank assessments, 1A: Experiences of recently graduated young scientists.
- Frank assessments, 2: Independent opinions about faculty advisers.
- Frank assessments, 2A: A list of seasoned, knowledgeable, accessible senior investigators with mentoring skills. No printed materials can substitute for the experience they can share or the vision they can impart.
- Required proficiency level in the necessary academic skills demanded by the profession (e.g., how proficient in math must a physics major be?).
- Minimum acceptable GRE scores and GPA.
- How much time is need to acquire the PhD skills.
- The ability to minor in a discipline remote from the major discipline.
- The amount of salary and financial aid that can be expected.
- Living costs for graduate education as a function of geography.
- The availability of a career placement system for science and engineering graduate students.
- History-of-science publications that would help students understand the development of various fields.
Respondents consider this area very important - especially because advisers may not have a full understanding of potential employment settings, especially nonacademic settings. Students need to know more about the following, by field:
- Placement record of various programs.
- Alternative career paths at various levels of education, including B.S. and M.S. levels.
- Realistic notions of career demands (time, financial, personal) in various areas of study, versus the intellectual rewards.
- Frank assessments of what it is like to work in a given field. Preconceptions are often misconceptions. For example, do undergraduates realize how much writing scientists do? Do they know how much time, energy and skill must be devoted to obtaining research grants? Do they have any idea of the day-to-day frustrations and rewards of working in industry versus academia?
- Starting salaries.
- Main source of employment. If it is an industry, what is the long-term prognosis for the health of that industry?
- Employment prospects after 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 years.
- Average hours worked per week.
- How well does one's desired standard of living match the typical income level of the profession?
- How many of an institution's graduates succeed in their field of study?
- Rate of employment turnover for recent graduates.
- How many jobs are there per job-seeker? (In today's tight job market, several correspondents on the Young Scientists' Network have used the estimate of one job for every six science and engineering graduates.)
- Qualities and skills valued by industrial employers.
- Grant-related opportunities available to young scientists as both graduate students and postdoctorates. How many years will they have to wait to gain independence?
The third question asked was, "When do you think students need this information? Do they need it at one stage or at many stages? Which information is needed at what stages?" The responses could be summarized as follows:
"The information needs to be available at many stages. People come gradually to new understandings and new questions, and reassess their progress continually. So the information needs to be available and findable when they're ready for it."