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The Centrality of Language in Defining Career Outcomes in Graduate Education

by Francisco Ramos & Lillian Zwemer - October 23, 2017

Colleges and universities are grappling with the shifting and sometimes ambiguous meaning of career outcomes. Authors of this commentary use the biomedical doctoral training landscape to explore this problem and the specific considerations that must be tackled to accurately describe postgraduate employment realities.

In the United States, colleges and universities are grappling with the shifting and ambiguous meaning of “career outcomes.” In what can be described as a mismatch between best intentions and mixed outcomes, dynamics both internal and external to the university obfuscate our understanding of the value of postgraduate career outcomes. These dynamics are facilitated by the coinciding trends of dwindling tenure-track academic openings and expanding opportunities in non-academic employment. The current moment presents a valuable opportunity to critically reflect upon and revise the ways in which graduate students are prepared for professional life beyond the university. In this essay, we use the biomedical doctoral training landscape to explore this problem and the specific considerations that must be tackled to accurately describe postgraduate employment realities. We argue that language plays an important role both in how graduate students perceive their future professional prospects and in how the university defines “success.”

Language is a subjective social phenomenon that shapes how people understand and perceive the world around them (Goffman, 1981). Filtered through experiences and interpreted by culture, language communicates a range of beliefs, values, and norms that regulate everyday social interactions (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974; LaTour, 1993; De Certeau, 2011). Language is also strategic in that it influences how people, in their circumstances, position themselves in relation to others, something the sociologist Erving Goffman famously called “the presentation of self” (1981). Within this context, language serves as an interlocutor between how graduate students interpret their future professional realities on the one hand, and how organizations and institutions frame postgraduate student “success” (or “failure”) on the other hand (e.g., Posselt, 2016). Members of the training environment, especially students, internalize this valuation, bringing it to bear on their future career choices and professional expectations (e.g., Long & Fox, 1995; Fox, 2010).


Scientists are trained to use technical language to objectively describe the natural and physical world (Popper, 1953). Despite rigorous efforts to address inherent tensions of bias and subjectivity, language and its concomitant cultural and social dynamics deeply influence the way that we describe, present, and interpret career outcomes in science. The case of biomedical career outcomes illustrates how multiple and, at times competing, logistical, cultural and financial motivations hinder clear descriptions of the same postgraduate reality. In response to the diversity of lived postgraduate career outcomes, biomedical trainees and funding agencies have led the push to expand the scope of doctoral training to include professional development (Fuhrman, Halme, O’Sullivan & Lindstaedt, 2011; National Institutes of Health, 2012; Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman & Varmus, 2014; Meyers, et al., 2016) and to increase transparency in postgraduate career outcomes (National Research Council, 2003; National Research Council, 2005; Alberts, et al., 2014; Polka, Krukenberg & McDowell, 2015). These initiatives, often with grassroots origins, primarily seek to address three inter-related questions that have long troubled the biomedical academic community. First, if the number of tenure-track academic positions is decreasing, yet the total of doctoral graduates continues to increase (Golde and Dore, 2001; Teitelbaum, 2008; Cyranoski, Gilbert, Ledford, Nayar, & Yahia, 2011; Mason, Johnston, Berndt, Segal, Lei, & Wiest, 2016), does the current model of doctoral training truly prepare graduates for the realities of professional life? Second, what is an appropriate professional use of the PhD? Third, what outcomes reporting methodology will allow the evaluation of a training program to be based on trainees’ careers (McDowell, 2016)? At the heart of these three questions is a tension between the professional purpose of biomedical doctoral training, the biomedical job market prospects, and the specificity of language used to capture and evaluate professional outcomes. The final question is of particular importance given that any answer influences the competitive distribution of large sums of federal money in the form of biomedical doctoral training grants.


For the purposes of training grant applications, doctoral programs must currently reduce the complex realities of post-graduate employment to a metric of research intensiveness (National Institutes of Health, 2015). This functionalist presentation of data is used to ascertain the success of training programs that are applying for grant funding, thereby reflecting a traditional definition of doctoral success: creation of the next generation of researchers. The ambiguity of defining research-intensiveness allow for quite a bit of inter-institutional variation in reporting, requiring administrators to make subjective judgments about what careers qualify as “intensive.” For example, should research intensiveness be reserved for researchers at R1 institutions (“Highest Research Activity”), or should it also include R2 (“Higher Research Activity”) (Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, 2015)? Which types of research careers in a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company may be considered research-intensive versus research-related? If a graduate who trained in molecular cancer biology now works in data science, is this position still considered research-related? Conversations with administrators throughout our institution as well as colleagues at other programs revealed variable practices in each of these scenarios. Moreover, since the study section reviewing a grant views “research-intensiveness” as a benchmark for success, some administrators may default toward the more “impressive” category for jobs that seem to straddle the line, thus skewing the representation. To address these and other concerns, the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences has announced that a new training grant rubric will be used starting in May of 2018, intending for grants to be awarded based on metrics of success that include, among other things, the reality of post-graduate employment (Gammie, Gibbs, & Singh, 2017). This test-case will hopefully pave the way for other training-grant funding agencies to follow suit.


Biomedical graduates have long been successful in engaging employment outside of academia. Until recently, however, this trend has, in general terms, neither been actively encouraged nor openly advertised as part of a given training program’s identity. To do so would acknowledge, either implicitly or explicitly, that there is a current shift in the relationship between the training and skills that students receive and the kind of professional opportunities that are available after their studies are complete. Thankfully, for reasons of transparency and ethical responsibility, many graduate programs now publicize the professional pursuits of their alumni, both as a service to their current students and as a recruitment tool for future applicants. Given that the publication of career outcomes is not currently mandatory for receipt of training grant funds, the very existence of publicized career outcomes data may be a statement unto itself about whether or not the program will support students who wish to prepare for diverse careers (Duke University Graduate School 2017; Duke University School of Medicine Office of Biomedical Graduate Education 2017; University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 2016; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2016). Programs that display more diverse outcomes may also be communicating a cultural belief that diverse outcomes are equally demonstrative of training success, making professional development an encouraged complement to research training. Several concurrent efforts are underway to produce consistently relevant, nationally normed and meaningful career outcomes reporting rubrics for use by the broader biomedical academic community (Association of American Universities Data Exchange 2017; Council of Graduate Schools 2017; O’Bannon 2015; Stayart, et al., 2017). Adoption of these metrics will allow potential students to judge for themselves how successful alumni have been in their professional pursuits.


Put bluntly, we need to reframe what we mean by “success” in doctoral training. In order to do so, there are three dynamics that must be taken into consideration. First, colleges and universities must recognize that there are a limited number of tenure-track academic opportunities available to graduates, so a definition of success that is available to a small percentage of graduates will relegate the majority of trainees to failure from the start. Second, not every postgraduate will find personal satisfaction as a tenure-track faculty member. As Powell (2016) recently observed, many highly-qualified candidates decide to forgo an academic career due to the mounting pressure to publish, secure external funding, and secure academic employment. This speaks directly to the intangible yet important practical and psychological facets comprising professional identities such as income, work satisfaction, and work-life balance (e.g., Mason, Goulden & Frasch, 2009). Third, the ongoing emergence of new technologies, the evolving scientific demands of our society and the volatility of the US labor market make it difficult to predict what the most rewarding and in-demand applications of the PhD will be in the future. This means that we have an ethical responsibility to prepare students for the likelihood that they will pursue a career outside of the academy, and to promote this pursuit as a successful use of their degree.


We therefore urge administrators, scholars, and policymakers alike to engage in honest and open discussion of the purported goals of doctoral training in light of the present reality of career outcomes. This process must be dynamic and collaborative between faculty and administrators, such that all parties understand and respond to the needs and values of others to achieve a symbiotic co-evolution. This begins by embracing the realities of our postgraduates and rooting our definitions of career outcomes in the contingencies that comprise their transition to professional life.




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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 23, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22191, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:13:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Francisco Ramos
    Duke University
    E-mail Author
    FRANCISCO RAMOS is the Assistant Dean for Assessment and Evaluation at the Graduate School at Duke University.
  • Lillian Zwemer
    Duke University
    E-mail Author
    LILLIAN ZWEMER is the Director of Biomedical Graduate Development at the School of Medicine at Duke University.
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