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The Responsibility of Doctoral Programs for the Career Preparation of Future Faculty
As doctoral students begin graduate school and contemplate their future careers, many, if not most, imagine that they will become faculty members. Despite more than a decade of reports describing the arduousness of the path and revealing the relatively small proportion of students who actually secure tenure-track positions, the next generation is undaunted in their desire to pursue a faculty career.
In many ways, that is good news. American colleges and universities must continually be replenished with passionate, committed scholars and researchers. The undergraduates of tomorrow deserve to be challenged and inspired by teachers who are familiar with the latest discoveries and well versed in contemporary pedagogical practice. But can we be confident in this vision of the future? Are research universities and graduate programs preparing doctoral students who will be the engaged educators every professor wants as a colleague and every parent wants teaching their child?
In 2001 my colleague Tim Dore, a chemist now at the University of Georgia, and I published the results of a national survey of doctoral students. More than 4,000 doctoral students in eleven disciplines at twenty-six universities responded to a lengthy survey that covered many aspects of their experiences as students, as well as their perceived preparation for their careers, particularly for faculty careers.*
We learned from our survey that students enter graduate school holding idealized, and in some ways unrealistic, views of faculty life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the graduate school experience provides a somewhat rude awakening to many. The lives they see their professors leading do not match the image in their minds. Many adjust their vision—replacing the "Mr. Chips" picture of life led by the gifted teacher who inspired them to go to graduate school with the publication—and grant-seeking life they see their advisors lead. Others are discouraged; they look at the untenured research faculty and opt away from such careers. Still others find their passion for their field undaunted.
We also found a mismatch between the aspects of faculty roles that students reported being interested in and looking forward to, and the ones for which they reported being prepared by their programs. These data (see table 1) tell us two things. First, doctoral students are interested in the variety of faculty roles; they do not aspire solely to be researchers. In fact, taken in the aggregate, doctoral students are interested in—and, one can assume, understand—the various aspects of teaching. A substantial proportion of students are interested in service roles. The application of research and expertise in broader disciplinary and public contexts has definite appeal. And while it may not be surprising that campus service roles—here represented by a question about committee work—are the least enticing, the responses to another question reveal significant interest in campus life: 69 percent reported interest in becoming involved in activities with undergraduates outside of class.
The second thing these data tell us is that, in general, the conception of "preparation" held by doctoral programs is quite narrow. The proportion of students who report that their program has helped to prepare them for these various tasks and roles is disappointingly low. For nearly every role or task performed by a faculty member, there is a significant gap between the proportion of students reporting interest and the proportion reporting preparation. The gap is small for conducting research, but much larger for many teaching and service roles .*
There are those who respond to these data by pointing out that the goal of doctoral education is to prepare excellent researchers and scholars; doctoral education is not skill-based career preparation. However, researchers and scholars must understand and take into account the uses and applications of the knowledge they create. Moreover, they must be able to transmit that knowledge by communicating with others in a variety of settings: with students in classrooms, with colleagues from other fields on interdisciplinary research teams, and with policy makers. Teaching, whether in an article, classroom, or grant proposal, is an integral part of investigation and scholarship. Researchers must be able to contextualize their work, both within their discipline and the world, and to explain its importance to others.
University-level teaching is a complex act, and the student respondents were able to identify the ways in which their programs had prepared them—and the ways in which their preparation fell short. Some of these data are presented in table 1; many more are in the project report. It is important to recognize that some departments and disciplines focus attention on preparing their doctoral students as teachers. The field of English, for example, is most likely to offer a course on pedagogy lasting at least one term; 79 percent of students in English said that this was available in their departments. Students from other teaching- intensive fields also reported the availability of such a course in their departments: mathematics (58 percent) and sociology (60 percent). By contrast, chemistry (28 percent), biology (30 percent), and art history departments (33 percent) did not routinely offer such preparation to students.
How do students' desires and perceptions change over time? Although we did not follow students over time, we asked them to think back to the start of their programs and recall whether their interest in a faculty career had increased, decreased, or stayed the same. Approximately one-third (35.4 percent) said their interest had declined, but another fifth (21.1 percent) reported that their interest had increased. The trend (although the differences are not statistically significant) is that those toward the end of their studies are more likely than those at the start to desire a faculty career, and there is a dip in the middle years. About half of the respondents see this goal as realistic, and more of those at the end of their graduate school careers than those at the beginning see this goal as realistic.
Surprisingly, comparing the students at each stage of graduate study does not reveal differences between them in either the level of interest or the level of perceived preparation for various tasks of faculty work. The big exception is preparation to conduct research; in this case, student interest and preparation both rise over time in a linear way. Perhaps what is most important here is the contrast with teaching, advising, and service. This finding reinforces the perception that attention to preparation for teaching, advising, service, and governance is at best sporadic and haphazard. By contrast, research is an activity in which students gain increased proficiency over the course of their time in graduate school.
These data provide a rich profile of a large number of students at a moment in time. The current state of affairs is clearly unsatisfactory—at least to students. And we argue that students have a clear-headed view that should serve as a wake up call to faculty members and administrators at colleges and universities. Responsibility for change, however, rests on many shoulders. We generated a number of recommendations for students, for those at colleges who are sending students to graduate school, and for those at PhD-granting institutions.
The data from our survey are intended to prompt all members of a department to ask, In what ways does our doctoral program meet student needs, and in what ways does it not? Asking this question in a spirit of collaborative inquiry, reshaping doctoral programs with creativity and with deliberate speed when necessary, and making the rationale and structure of the program transparent to all will ensure that the next generation of faculty members are prepared to tackle their myriad roles as engaged scholars.