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  October 4, 2004

Grad Students Urged To Develop Variety Of Skills For Job Market

Ph.D. graduates face national competition for jobs, and they must develop the skills and attitudes they will need to be competitive, according to Janet Greger, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School.

She gave a presentation to graduate students on "Trends in Graduate Education" on Sept. 27, the first event this semester in a series organized by the Graduate Student Senate.

She said the pool of graduate students is larger than many people think. Statistics from fall 2002 showed there were 1.45 million graduate students in the United States; since 1989, more than 35,000 doctorates have been awarded each year.

National data also show that obtaining a doctorate is a lengthy process, she said, ranging from an average of more than five years in the lab sciences to nearly 10 years in the humanities.

Although many graduate students aspire to an academic career, she said, one of the big changes nationally in recent years has been the increasing number of Ph.D.'s who say they're willing to go into industry.

She encouraged graduate students to explore the possibility of a career in commerce by making the most of opportunities such as meeting with visiting speakers from industry.

Those hoping to pursue an academic career can also benefit, she said: "Soon you'll be faculty and you'll have graduate students who'll ask questions about industry."

Greger said graduate education is driven by national needs, as determined by the National Academy of Sciences and federal agencies. These projections are the basis of many funding decisions by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

She said agencies intend to fund not only the search for immediate solutions to problems in particular areas, but to develop expertise for the future by supporting graduate students.

The National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council help shape expectations about graduate education through their rankings of graduate programs every 10 years. Next fall, the NRC will conduct a survey that seeks to establish standards for graduate student training.

Foundations such as Carnegie also are trying to improve graduate education, she added, noting that UConn's history department is one of 10 picked by Carnegie as a model for history programs.

Greger said the NAS, the Carnegie Foundation, and other groups have identified a set of essential skills for graduate students, including the ability to write at both technical and lay levels and to speak both formally and informally. "You should be able to write a paragraph explaining to your mother what you did in your dissertation, and why it was worth doing," she said.

In addition to in-depth knowledge of one particular area, graduate students are expected to have data management skills, including computer and statistical skills; knowledge of the theoretical basis and the applications of their own and related research; and an understanding of the infrastructure of organizations, such as universities, businesses, and government.

Those who plan academic careers also need broad knowledge to teach and mentor students, she said. "The best college mentors have had broad enough life experiences that they can open up new ways of approaching the material for students."

She said teaching experience is valuable even for those who plan other careers: "Even if you're going into industry, with a Ph.D. you'll probably be in a management position — what are you doing but teaching?" The top government jobs, too, require the ability to speak. "Like it or not, whatever job you have, you will be teaching."

She said graduate students also should be well versed in ethics, intellectual property, and compliance with regulations defining the parameters of research with human and animal subjects.

Ethics are fundamental, she said, because "the whole basis of scholarly research — whether it's in English, or history, or pharmacy, or engineering — rests on following the standards."

They also must be able to quickly acquire new skills related to their research. "About five years after you've got your Ph.D., about half of what you learned will be out of date," she said. "The biggest thing you learn doing a Ph.D. is how to learn."