U-M chemistry professor Zhan Chen, who received his post-doctoral degree from University of California, Berkeley, pursued chemistry since childhood. After graduate school, Chen considered other careers, but ultimately decided on teaching because he understood how significant an impact professors can have on their students.  

“From very young, I knew that it was extremely important for young people to have good teachers,” Chen said. “I chose chemistry as my major because I had excellent chemistry teachers in my middle school, high school and college.”

Researchers from the Rackham Institutional Research offices first Michigan Doctoral Experience Study in September 2017. The results of the survey, designed to collect data about the first-year graduate are now publically available. The University of Michigans administration hopes the data will help improve programs for future graduate students.

“The goal is really for us to try to better understand the doctoral student experience,” Gonzalez said. “We have lots of kinds of dry data (gender, race, and ethnicity information) about these students, but we don’t know, at least on a large scale, the details about their experience and how that changes over time.”

For the 2017 MDES survey, all participants were first-year graduate students from multiple disciplines. Researchers will follow up with these students each year to track how their experiences change as they approach graduation.John Gonzales, director of Rackham Institutional Research, explained the study allowed researchers to obtain information from students beyond what was shared on their applications. Topics the questions explored includes the diversity of the student population, students’ prior experiences, and expectations for graduate school and future careers.

Because many graduate programs require students to complete some research during their studies, the MDES team was pleasantly surprised to learn 86 percent of the first-year students had experience conducting some form of research at the undergraduate level.

“Often we hear a notion of how some students might be unprepared (for graduate school), so we ask about a number of experiences that people have coming in,” Gonzalez said. “Doing research is one of the big experiences that are critical in preparing students to go to graduate school, so we didn’t expect that number to be so high.”

Joslin Musick, a Rackham student studying molecular and integrative physiology, attributed her confidence coming to graduate school to her undergraduate preparation.

“I did feel prepared for graduate school,” Musick said. “This could have been a combination of my course load and my research that I had done during my undergraduate years.”

The Rackham Institutional Research team also asked students about their career expectations. About 72 percent of surveyed students pursuing a master’s in social sciences reported they wanted to teach after earning their degrees. Seventy-three percent of these students who chose both teaching and research reported wanting a tenure track position. In comparison, only about 43 percent of surveyed students pursuing their master’s in the physical sciences or engineering reported they wanted to teach after earning their degrees and 46 percent wanted a tenure track position. 

Gonzalez explains these differences in career expectations between students of the natural sciences and those of the social sciences is most likely related to the nature of these fields and their corresponding job opportunities.

“This is probably a reality of the kinds of job markets that our students are expected to go into and the kind of available positions,” Gonzalez said. “So if you think about students of engineering, for example, and the biological and health sciences, they might have other opportunities in other areas like start-up companies … where they can go into the private sector.”

While natural sciences students have more options to go into the private sector, Gonzalez explains traditionally humanities and social sciences students tend to find more jobs in education.

“Social science students, the traditional pathway for a lot of students in these fields is tenure track faculty positions or government,” Gonzalez said. “So I think it kind of aligns with their disciplines and the expectations and realities of those disciplines as well as the markets that are out there after they graduate.”

Chen hopes he will have the same impact on his students as his teachers had on him when he was a young student with a budding interest in chemistry. In 2017, Chen even visited his high school chemistry teacher in Nanjing, China. His former teacher turned 100 years old last year and Chen gave him a mug with a U-M logo as a gift. Chen also came from a family with an academic background, so for him, working for a corporation was just not as attractive as teaching.

Currently, researchers are in the process of collecting data for the 2018 MDES survey. Respondents will respond to similar questions while in their second year in graduate school. The Rackham Institutional Research team hopes to glean new information from these students to help future classes. They also hope to reach out to a new group of first-year students after the original group of respondents earn their degrees.

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