In Pursuit of Careers in the Professoriate or Beyond the Professoriate: What Matters to Doctoral Students When Making a Career Choice?
This qualitative study was conducted to illuminate the under-researched aspect of doctoral students’ career decision-making by examining their internal cognitive processes based on the Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) theory. Specifically, this study compared doctoral students’ career decision-making from two career groups, those pursuing the professoriate versus those pursuing careers beyond the professoriate.
Due to PhD workforce supply-demand imbalances in academic job markets and to a growing interest in careers outside academia around the world, an increasing number of doctoral recipients have pursued careers beyond the professoriate, which are considered non-traditional career paths in doctoral education. While a growing number of studies have investigated these changing trends, it remains limited to fully capture more introspective domains of the career choice processes. Given that the career decision-making experience is highly individualized, it is critical to explore doctorate students’ own narratives about career decision-making.
Individual structured interviews were conducted with 30 doctoral students from a public research-oriented university in the United States. Employing Directed Content Analysis, two researchers developed the initial coding categories based on the guiding theory, CIP theory, and deductively analyzed the data to identify emerging major themes.
Findings from the study highlight the core factors that influence doctoral students’ career choices across fields, which allows developing centralized career resources and support systems at the institutional level. Specifically, findings pointed to different approaches for doctoral students to (re-)assess their career choice while providing implications for institutions, academic departments, and individual stakeholders such as faculty advisor and doctoral students, to develop systematic career support in this changing academic job market.
Data analysis uncovered three core factors impacting doctoral students’ career decision making, which are (1) roles of the first-hand experience in career confirmation/shift; (2) dissimilar career readiness status by group; and (3) impact of personal career values.
Both institutions and academic departments could reassess the culture and value of career development and refine co-curricular activities to offer adequate professional development opportunities in doctoral training to develop career support systems aligned with students’ diversified career needs and interests. As time and first-hand experiences are identified as critical factors facilitating their career progress, doctoral students may want to proactively seek diverse opportunities to gain first-hand experience in and outside campus.
Researchers could continue similar research in other universities and countries where similar concerns exist. These studies would help fully clarify common influential factors on career choices of doctoral students across fields.
Considering the realities of doctoral students’ diversified career interests and career outcomes, institutes of higher education should make intentional efforts to broaden the definition of “successful” PhD career outcomes, which ultimately helps break the prevailing myth that doctoral students or recipients who pursue careers beyond the professoriate, called nontraditional or alternative career paths, are considered as failures or incompetent.
Future research should consider examining diverse doctoral student populations such as early-stage doctoral students to discover additional factors influencing their career decision-making. The authors also recommend cross-cultural studies in other countries where similar career concerns exist, such as the U.K. and the Netherlands, to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how doctoral students’ career decisions are made.