Posted by: thediygeochemist | September 15, 2010

what I’ve learned 2: job placement (?)

In his comment on my last post, Barry mentioned “job placement” as an issue in choosing an advisor. My feeling on that is that it doesn’t hurt to ask, but you have to take the info with a grain of salt. Remember, professors who talk about job placement usually only mention their most successful students; how does it benefit them to mention their failures?

I first became aware of this when I was working for SL. I’d mentioned that my sister Courtney (yes, she of the advisor trouble) had quit a PhD program with only a master’s. He shrugged. Later I mentioned her field…and her school…and his eyebrows went up. “Wait a second. Who did she work for again?”

I told him. Then he asked what years she’d been there. After more questioning (and an email to Courtney) it turned out that, while they couldn’t remember ever meeting each other, they had a ton of mutual acquaintances–her advisor and his advisor had been good friends, so even though they were at different schools there was a lot of communication/visiting/etc. between the groups.

We went to the web page of Courtney’s former advisor to hunt for pics (SL still thought they might have passed in the hall or something) and found group pictures from that era. Then, just for grins, we looked at the page showing her advisor’s past students: she wasn’t there. Never mind that she’d achieved some form of fame in the field she went into later; he clearly didn’t consider her career worth tracking. SL, being familiar with the group, looked for names of other people he’d known, but only recognized one or two. Many names were missing from the list.

Since then I’ve been skeptical every time I look at a long list of well-placed former students: I always wonder who’s missing. How many people quit? How many got humdrum jobs doing sales for a pharmaceutical company? How many are working as taxi drivers because they couldn’t find a job? (Don’t laugh; this actually happened to some of my dad’s classmates. And they got their PhDs from a top-10 school.)

Do you really think a professor is going to mention a student who falls in one of these categories? John Q. Doe, PhD Chemistry 1992, Yellow Cab. Vicki X. Smith, MS Chemistry 1993, Lincoln High School. Courtney H. Unlikely, MS 2000, (JD 2003) Law Clerk, SCOTUS…

Yeah. I didn’t think so.

That’s why, to me, it’s more important to find out what the prospective advisors DO to make you more marketable. If you want to go into academia, do they focus on getting you to publish a lot? If you want to go into industry, do they have collaborations with industrial R&D groups? For either path, how do they help you network during your grad student career so that, when the time comes to graduate, people outside your institution know you?

For example, Dr. Hand-Waver encourages me to talk to scientists at the USGS (which would be a great place to do a postdoc, in my opinion). She’s even gone down there with me before, when we were both interested in some of the research that was being done: she wanted input on a proposal she was drafting, I wanted input on a project I wished I could do, and the scientists were curious whether we could mesh our work with theirs.

Likewise, when neither of us could find a paper on technique XYZ–she swore she’d read it, and even thought she remembered the primary author–she had me write to the guy, introducing myself as her student (they’d collaborated before) and asking if he knew what she was talking about. He remembered the paper too, but it wasn’t his, and he couldn’t remember who wrote it either. We corresponded back and forth for a while until we both found papers (independently) that described XYZ. This is not something I would have done on my own, so I’m grateful that she gave me the little nudge (and permission to use her name, which definitely opened the door for me).

In short, job placement statistics can be misleading. It’s better to check out the factors which affect job placement and use those to make your decision.


  1. This is one reason it’s nice to work for a just-getting-tenure prof. I can count all the people who have graduated from my lab on one hand, and I know where they all are!

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