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Lack of career help may affect attrition

This is the fifth story in a five-part series examining attrition among graduate students.

Many graduate students who wish to pursue jobs outside the traditional academic setting say they find limited career counseling, despite efforts from the Career Center and academic departments.

Many students and administrators agree career counseling services need improvement. But although some attribute student drop-outs in part to the lack of such services, whether it contributes to attrition remains in dispute. Most students who decide on a non-academic career already have a definite sense of their plans, said third-year zoology student Julia Bowsher.

However, Virginia Steinmetz, counselor for most graduate students at the Career Center, said she believes students are less likely to drop out if they can find advice from a trusted adviser.

"I may have helped people continue [in their graduate studies] by listening to their hesitations, helping them with their problem solving," Steinmetz said.

Career advising at the Graduate School is mostly decentralized, with departments taking up the primary role as advisers. This allows students to receive advice specific to their discipline from faculty members in the field.

One problem, however, is that not all departments are equally committed to career advising, Steinmetz said.

"There are some departments that take very good care of their students and work with students on placement, their dissertation topic [and] getting prepared to make their first conference presentations," Steinmetz said. "Other departments, depending on the leadership, might fall back and not do as much."

Furthermore, since most departments train doctoral students primarily to become scholars, career advising gets a low priority. Reiko Mazuka, director of graduate studies in social psychology and health sciences, said training for non-academic careers in psychology is minimal, even though many students go into non-academic, psychology-related jobs.

"We say from the beginning that our training is geared toward academia, but over the years, students' interest can change," Mazuka said.

Graduate students can now participate in what Steinmetz called a "moderately successful" Ph.D. career fair co-sponsored by Duke and four other North Carolina schools. Employer turnout at the career fairs has been modest. About 30 employers came to the first of these fairs in Chapel Hill two years ago, and only 14 showed up last year.

In addition to the fair, the Career Center also attempts to provide students with information about alternative careers through a series of symposia with alumni and other doctorate degree holders who have pursued nontraditional careers. In the past, the Career Center has brought in an astronomer who works with the Hubble Space Telescope in Arizona and a botanist who writes about the history of botany. "It's someone like that that a graduate student needs to know about," Steinmetz said.

However, many students said they were largely ignorant of the Career Center's offerings. "I haven't spent much time with the Career Center," said electrical engineering student Jason Jopling. "It's not a daily presence in what I do."

Steinmetz said she believes some attrition is actually beneficial. "From [Dean of the Graduate School Lewis Siegel's] perspective, there is a cost to students leaving, but I think [others] see this in a more balanced way," she said. "Students have screened themselves out because they're not suited for [the doctoral track]."

Provost Peter Lange said attrition after the first few years is partially due to career issues. "Students learn as they get further down in their career that, given the job market, they are not going to get the kind of job they were thinking they would in the first place," he said.

Siegel, who believed lack of career advising may contribute to attrition, agreed. "Toward the end, students might not see a clear path for where they want to be," he said.

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