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UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral alumni have crucial role in national effort focused on career pathways

Steve Matson, Dean
Steve Matson, Dean

Our alumni are The Graduate School’s most important asset. They represent the quality of graduate education at Carolina. They are leaders, educators, innovators and entrepreneurs. They know what helped them succeed as students and what could be enhanced.

They hold key pieces of information that can benefit the future of our graduate programs. We intend to gather that information in a major survey now under way.

In October, I wrote about the Understanding PhD Career Pathways for Program Improvement project. As one of only 29 universities nationwide selected to participate in this project, UNC-Chapel Hill (and our alumni) will have a crucial role in the success of this national effort to document Ph.D. career pathways. While career surveys have provided insights into undergraduate outcomes for many years, this is the first time such an in-depth effort has been attempted at the graduate level.

Over the next three years, The Graduate School will survey doctoral alumni each fall who are three, eight and 15 years post-graduation. Surveys will be sent to alumni in 17 different disciplines in the humanities and STEM fields, asking a range of questions about career trajectory, preparedness and satisfaction. Every participant will answer a set of standardized questions to provide national data and to allow benchmarking.

In late October, we sent links to 423 alumni and asked them to complete the survey. The participation rate was nearly 40 percent – we are already thinking about ways we can increase participation in the future.

As we learn about career trajectories for graduates in each of the 17 disciplines surveyed, we expect to gain information to enable better support of our doctoral programs and students. Every individual takes a different career path and survey results will provide insight into the myriad career paths chosen by our alumni.

This information is important for three reasons. First, many of our entering graduate students, as well as the public, believe the only chosen career for someone with a Ph.D. is a faculty position. This is no longer the case and many alumni choose fulfilling careers in government, industry and the non-profit sector. We need data to support these emerging trends.

Second, our current students deserve to be introduced to the wide array of career choices available to them as they complete their Ph.D. Finally, prospective students need more information regarding career outcomes as they make their decision to go to graduate school. The aggregated survey results will provide this information.

The Graduate School plays an important role here — we are uniquely positioned to support students across campus. We anticipate we will hear about the need for additional communication training, more focus on developing networking skills, more opportunity to develop leadership and teamwork skills. This type of training can be effectively provided in The Graduate School’s interdisciplinary setting. In fact, we are doing some of this already with our multifaceted courses on communication and our innovative leadership training.

Through our survey, we can also identify alumni to participate in career exploration panels for our current students. We know from experience that our alumni are the best ambassadors for the array of career choices available to our doctoral graduates. Connecting our students with accomplished alumni will enhance their networking skills while providing critical career information.

The Graduate School is working hard to be a leader in providing the information and guidance needed by our students to take full advantage of the expanding array of career opportunities available to them. With help from our alumni, we will make the career path less mysterious and the first few steps, at least, more deliberate. Ultimately, our goal is to help all our graduates enjoy productive careers that will have significant benefit to the public.

Steven W. Matson, Ph.D.
Dean, The Graduate School
Professor of Biology
UNC-Chapel Hill

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