Liberal Education

The Disconnect between Graduate Education and the Realities of Faculty Work: A Review of Recent Research

In 1993 the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) launched the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program because we thought there was a serious need to improve the way graduate students prepared for an academic career. The nearly exclusive emphasis on research in traditional doctoral programs was, we believed, not adequate. Knowing a specialization and how to conduct research is a necessary but not sufficient condition to get a job as a faculty member and to do it well. Because most faculty teach and advise students, teaching and learning should be a central component of graduate preparation. And because professors, like other professionals, share responsibility for governing their organizations, we believed that graduate students should learn about the academic profession, colleges and universities as organizations, and relationships between professors and their institutions-in short, about academic citizenship.

Those of us who developed the PFF program could find little research or empirical evidence for our beliefs. Indeed, when compared to undergraduate education, I discovered that in doctoral education:

  • The scholarly literature is thin.
  • Few empirical studies are available on best practices or factors associated with student success and failure.
  • Institutional research to track the progress of graduate students and make changes in programs is very limited.
  • Studies of alumni are few and graduate programs are deprived of a feedback loop to know how their programs relate to the actual careers of their alumni.
  • There is little innovation or rigorous assessments to test alternative educational practices.
  • Because doctoral education is decentralized it resembles a "cottage industry," in which each faculty member establishes his/her own rules, little collective learning occurs, and minimal centralized standards or guidelines are available.

The contrast with the richness of resources for understanding undergraduate education is striking. For undergraduate education there is a substantial scholarly literature about good (and poor) practices and about multiple kinds of educational innovations and experiments. Recent years have been a particularly fertile time for re-thinking traditional practices, assessing student learning outcomes, and introducing educational innovations to improve the education of undergraduates.

But the situation regarding graduate education is starting to change. Several studies relevant to doctoral education have been completed and others are in process. Collectively, they are painting an empirical picture of the need for PFF programs that earlier we could only intuit. This essay surveys these recent studies and summarizes their results, as they convey a research-based need for the kinds of innovative faculty preparation programs we have been nurturing for several years.

Studies of the Graduate Student Experience
Chris Golde and Timothy Dore (2001) surveyed doctoral students in eleven arts and sciences disciplines at twenty-seven universities. They drew two important conclusions.

The data from this study show that in today's doctoral programs, there is a three-way mismatch between student goals, training, and actual careers. . . . Doctoral students persist in pursuing careers as faculty members, and graduate programs persist in preparing them for careers at research universities, despite the well-publicized paucity of academic jobs and efforts to diversify the options available for doctorate-holders. The result: Students are not well prepared to assume the faculty positions that are available, nor do they have a clear concept of their suitability for work outside of research. (5)

Fifty-four percent of the graduate students reported a "very strong" preference for a position in a large research-oriented university, a like number preferred a liberal arts college, and 44 percent wanted a comprehensive university. Only 4 percent were interested in a community college. However, we know that few positions are available in Research 1 universities. For example, one large, well-regarded Midwestern university found that fewer than 10 percent of their new Ph.D.s in the arts, humanities, and social sciences obtained positions in Research 1 universities; in some other fields it was fewer than 5 percent. Further, Golde and Dore noted an "information deficit" among many students. They urged that doctoral programs become more transparent and provide useful information to students.

Since this survey included fifteen institutions that operated university-wide PFF programs, Golde (2001) did a special supplemental analysis of responses from students at PFF institutions who said they had been involved in a PFF program. They were compared with graduate students at the same universities who said they were not part of a PFF program and with those at universities without PFF programs.

  1. A larger percentage of PFF students are more interested in a faculty career, and a larger percentage of them report they increased their interest in a faculty career.
  2. PFF students are more interested in teaching undergraduates, and, compared with the other groups, PFF students indicate they are more prepared to lead discussion sections, teach lecture courses, develop a teaching philosophy, create an inclusive classroom climate, and use information technology.
  3. Furthermore, PFF students indicate they are more interested in and better prepared for participation in campus governance.
  4. PFF students are far more interested than their counterparts in working in academic settings other than research universities.
  5. PFF students are more likely to have more than one faculty mentor.
  6. PFF students are more likely to have positive experiences with their advisor and other faculty mentor.

These are all goals of PFF programs, and it appears that they are more effective than other doctoral programs in generating these outcomes. Of course, students may self-select into and away from PFF programs, and these results may be an artifact of such self-selection.

The National Association of Graduate and Professional Students has conducted two Web-based surveys of graduate students. The first, a pilot test, (Davis and Fiske 2000) involved about 6,500 graduate students who volunteered to participate; this was not a representative sample. Such a survey might elicit complaints from students, but over 75 percent were satisfied with their overall educational experiences, expressed satisfaction with their advisors, and would recommend their programs to others. When it came to specific items, however, they were more critical. They noted a paucity of information--similar to the Golde and Dore findings. Seventy-one percent said they were not told the percentage of students who complete their program, 63 percent reported they were not informed about where graduates found jobs, and 50 percent said they were not provided enough information to make an informed decision about choosing to pursue a Ph.D.

In 2000, the National Association of Graduate and Professional Associations (2001) conducted a Web-based survey of about 32,600 students enrolled in doctoral programs at 399 universities that generally confirmed the results of their earlier study. It also contained a few questions identical to the Golde and Dore survey. In the two surveys, the results on these items were similar, suggesting that the voluntary Web-based approach gives similar results to those of a more representative sample. Results are available at the NAGPS Web site:

Jody Nyquist, Ann Austin, Jo Sprague, and Donald Wulff (2001) conducted a four-year longitudinal study using in-depth interviews to examine how graduate students develop as teachers and as scholars. They cited four concerns of students about their current experience in doctoral programs:

  1. Lack of systematic, comprehensive programs to help them learn to teach;
  2. Little feedback and mentoring;
  3. Little attention to understanding the range of possible careers; and
  4. Discrepancies between doctoral education and realities of faculty work.

They conclude: "At a time in their lives when they are particularly vulnerable, graduate students are confronted with multiple, sometimes conflicting, explicit and implicit messages. . . . At the research universities, the most contradictory or ambiguous messages concern the relative value of the teaching and research dimensions of academic life" (3).

Barbara Lovitts (2001) focused her study on those who completed and did not complete their doctoral degrees. She and Cary Nelson published an article in Academe (2001) titled "The Hidden Crisis in Graduate Education: Attrition from Ph.D. Programs," based largely on her doctoral dissertation. They reported that:

  1. "…the long term attrition rate [from Ph.D. programs] nationwide is about 50 percent ."
  2. There is little difference in measures of academic quality of completers and non-completers; the difference is not what they bring to their programs (such as differences in academic quality) but what happens to them in doctoral programs.
  3. Graduate students who fail to complete their degrees are less integrated into the professional and social life of the department (e.g., knowledge of expectations, information about how the department's strengths and emphases match their own career goals, informal interaction with faculty or peers, and availability of an office).
  4. Not surprisingly, degree completion is related to financial aid. Teaching and research assistants were the most likely to complete, because, the authors theorize, they are more integrated academically into their programs. Those most likely to drop out are those with no financial support. More surprising, those receiving graduate fellowships, typically the "best and the brightest" with the "best" financial aid package, abandon their programs in greater numbers than those with assistantships. In effect, students with fellowships are free to remain disconnected from the department, while those with assistantships have relationships with faculty members, peers, and often with undergraduate students.

Taken together, these studies indicate a need for the kinds of preparation that PFF programs provide. Further, they suggest a number of specific steps that universities and departments can take to improve the education of graduate students.

Studies of New Faculty
Another perspective on the need for better graduate preparation can be seen in the experiences of new faculty and their struggles to succeed. In Harvard University's Project on Faculty Appointments, Cathy Trower and her colleagues studied advanced graduate students and faculty members in their first two years of new full-time, tenure track jobs. She reported (2001) highlights of the findings.

  1. New Ph.D.s are ambivalent about tenure and tenure track positions; few of these positions are available, and those that are available are difficult to get.
  2. Non-tenure track positions carry a stigma against them and are often regarded as a "consolation prize."
  3. For many new faculty, the nature of the work, location of the position, and quality of life have become more important considerations than tenure or tenure track positions.

The new faculty found life stressful with heavy teaching loads, new course preparations, getting to know colleagues, adjusting to a new organization, and handling requests to serve on committees or assist on departmental tasks. These conditions seemed to be a surprise to them and not something that they anticipated and prepared for.

In a project called Heeding New Voices: Academic Careers for a New Generation (Rice, Sorcinelli, and Austin 2000), Mary Deane Sorcinelli reported (2001) three major concerns of new faculty:

  1. Most desire intellectual community but actually experience much isolation and loneliness, and they report receiving little mentoring.
  2. About tenure, expectations are not clear, faculty receive little feedback, and the process is mysterious.
  3. They seek a balanced and integrated life but confess that they are overworked and have many competing responsibilities, especially those with families.

Sorcinelli declared: "We know what we need to do," calling for:

  1. consistent, reasonable expectations clearly communicated,
  2. flexible career tracks, and
  3. self-reflection and dialogues about the kind of lives and work wanted and how to make those aspirations happen.

These recent studies build upon earlier empirical studies of new faculty by Boice (1992), Menges (1999), Sorcinelli and Austin (1992), and Tierney and Bensimon (1996).

Together, they suggest several steps that can be taken by graduate schools, departments, and employing institutions to make the transition into a faculty career go more smoothly than appears to be usual.

Studies of Ph.D. Alumni
The Survey of Doctoral Recipients has been conducted regularly for decades. It has provided the most complete data about the first jobs taken by those who complete their doctoral degrees and basic descriptive information about their educational attainments. Until recently, however, we have known little about doctoral alumni after the initial years and about how alumni view their education in light of their job demands. That is starting to change.

In their study, "The Ph.D.s-Ten Years Later," Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny surveyed Ph.D. alumni. They obtained responses from nearly 6,000 Ph.D.s from sixty-one doctoral-granting institutions in six fields chosen to represent major fields of study. They have published several articles on their findings and are currently publishing a book. One illustrative essay is an analysis of the responses for Ph.D.s in the field of English (Nerad and Cerny, 1999a). Responses included suggestions to improve teacher training (the top priority among those employed in the academy), improve career and placement services, help students publish and attain professional visibility, and increase opportunities for interdisciplinary study.

Nerad and Cerney found the situation surrounding the job search so dismal that they called it a "culture of neglect." They found high proportions of the respondents reported seeking help of various kinds and not getting the type or amount they needed. For example, 41 percent who wanted help preparing for an academic job interview reported that they "never got this help," and 32 percent did get "some help but not as much as needed."

Another part of the study focused on workplace skills such as teamwork, collaboration, interdisciplinary work, and organizational and managerial skills. Responses confirmed that most Ph.D.s in both academic and non-academic positions are required to use these skills, but such skills were not taught in their graduate programs. Fewer than 20 percent reported doctoral experience to learn teamwork, collaboration, or organizational and managerial skills.

Although the particulars of their other analyses and reports (1999a, 1999b) differ from this one on English alumni, the general results are similar.

Stephen Smith and Liane Pedersen-Gallegos (unpublished paper) have studied Ph.D.s four to eight years after obtaining their degrees. They surveyed physical scientists, including all graduates in 1990-1994 from eight medium- to large-sized universities in chemistry, physics, atmospheric sciences, astronomy, and related fields. As might be expected of this sample, 44 percent were employed in business or industry, 25 percent were employed at a four-year college or university, and about a quarter were employed in some sort of research laboratory. In interviews, those employed outside of academia reported their graduate programs were narrowly focused on preparing students for graduate level academic jobs, confirming the kinds of mismatch that others have found.

It is curious that only 16 percent report using knowledge of their dissertation "often," and another 32 percent report using the knowledge of their specialty "often." But there is a high degree of agreement about the importance of what the authors call "soft skills" in their work: from 68 to 90 percent said that critical thinking, oral presentations, analyzing data, writing reports/articles, and work in an interdisciplinary context is of "high importance."

When asked to rate the quality of their graduate training in these same skills, the percentages regarding it as "high" were uniformly lower than the percentages saying it was of high importance in their work. For example, while 80 percent said that oral presentations were of high importance in their work, 62 percent said the quality of this in their education was high. Even more startling, 68 percent said working in an interdisciplinary context was of high importance, but only 32 percent rated their doctoral program as high in this quality. Only one-third regarded the quality of their preparation for teaching as high.

These studies point to a gap between the focus of doctoral programs and the work actually expected of those who hold the highest degrees. The evidence is beginning to accumulate that there is a mismatch between doctoral programs and the tasks that Ph.D. alumni do in their work, whether in the academy or in some other arena. And there is evidence that most colleges and universities that hire new faculty are looking for candidates who can do more than conduct research (Adams 2002).

Collectively, these several studies empirically document the need for doctoral programs to provide a better bridge between doctoral preparation and the work that faculty-and other professionals-actually do. Whether one views doctoral education from the point of view of the graduate students, new faculty, or Ph.D. alumni several years after obtaining their degrees, PFF programs address that widely perceived need. Graduate students aspiring to a faculty career would benefit from additional education about teaching and learning, the professoriate, the variety of institutions in which faculty work, and the skills required in their work.

Further, there is growing evidence that graduate students enrolled in PFF programs have a qualitatively different experience than their counterparts in the same institutions who do not participate in such programs (DeNeef 2002). Although the role of self-selection of students into PFF programs complicates the interpretation of the data, the results are consistent with the conclusion that PFF programs address serious needs and provide better preparation for future faculty.

Implications of the Research: Toward an Action Agenda
These studies document serious problems with traditional practices in doctoral education and the need for improvements in the ways faculty members are prepared. At the very least, these studies beg for conversations among graduate deans, department chairs, directors of graduate studies, graduate faculty, and graduate students. Several common themes suggest specific actions that universities and departments offering graduate degrees might take to improve the education of their students.

They also form the rationale for several action projects to develop new models of doctoral education and to improve practice by bringing graduate education into closer alignment with the actual work of faculty members. The oldest such program is the Preparing Future Faculty program operated jointly by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools. Jody Nyquist directed a project called Re-Envisioning the Ph.D., which involved a massive collection of data, criticisms, experiments, and activities of multiple constituencies concerned about doctoral education. A conference by that same name was held in Spring 2000, bringing together representatives from many constituents of graduate education--graduate students, graduate faculty, fellowship providers, business and industry, educational associations, disciplinary societies, and primarily undergraduate colleges and universities that hire new Ph.D.s. Their ideas and recommendations, as well as a wealth of supporting material can be found on their web site (

Recently the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation announced an initiative called "The Responsive Ph.D." Led by Earl Lewis, this project has assembled a group of fourteen doctoral universities to hold a series of forums in order to devise ways to create a doctorate that is more responsive to social and academic changes. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching also has launched a new program of research and collaborative initiatives to enhance doctoral education. Called Pedagogies of the Profession, it will emphasize "stewardship of the discipline" in six different fields.

These several initiatives, based on a growing body of research, hold promise for developing new, more welcoming, informative, and supportive pathways for graduate students to become faculty members.

Jerry G. Gaff is co-director of the Preparing Future Faculty Program.


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Boice, R. 1992. The new faculty member. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Lovitts, B.E. 2001. Leaving the ivory tower. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Menges, R.J. and Associates. 1999. Faculty in new jobs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Graduate and Professional Students. 2001. Preliminary executive summary of the National Doctoral Program Survey. Washington, DC. (

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Rice, R.E., M.D.Sorcinelli, and A.E.Austin. 2000. Heeding new voices: Academic careers for a new generation. New Pathways Working Paper Series #7. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Smith, S.J. and L.Pedersen-Gallegos. 2001. The careers and work of Ph.D. scientists: Not simply academic. Unpublished paper. Boulder, CO: Bureau of Sociological Research, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado.

Sorcinelli, M.D. 2001. Paradise lost: How the academy converts enthusiastic recruits into early-career doubters. Presentation at AAHE Conference on Faculty Roles and Rewards, Tampa, Florida.

Sorcinelli, M.D. 2000. Principles of good practice: Supporting early-career faculty. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education.

Sorcinelli, M.D. and A.E.Austin, eds. 1992. Developing new and junior faculty. New Directions for Teaching and Learning no.48. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tierney, W.G. and E.M.Bensimon. 1996. Promotion and tenure: Community and socialization in academe. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Trower, C.A. 2001. Paradise lost: How the academy converts enthusiastic recruits into early-career doubters. Presentation. AAHE Conference on Faculty Roles and Rewards, Tampa, Florida.

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