Progress report: the career tracking survey of doctorate holders

Launched in October 2016, the career tracking project has completed its crucial phase of questionnaire design and survey preparation. After having been open for one month (14/03-13/04), this online survey collected over 2000 complete responses, which represents on average 24% of all those who received the survey invitation.

There is a considerable difference in response levels across the various participating organisations, with two organisations above 70%, two –above 45%, three above 20% and one slightly below 20%. The survey completion rate was over 90%, which is rather high considering that the survey took about 15-20 minutes to complete. Our team is currently working on the analysis of the findings and the final report is going to be published in July 2017.

The following nine organisations are involved - University of Maastricht, The Netherlands; Technical University of Munich, Germany; Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany; University of Bucharest, Romania; University of Split, Croatia; University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg; Institute of Science and Technology, Austria, and the AXA Research Fund, France.

Re-shaping the study

The basis for this survey was the pilot career tracking survey launched by the ESF in 2014-2015 that had five partner organisations on board. In the current study, the questionnaire was reshaped by the ESF, its experts and partner organisations. While the pilot questionnaire was mainly addressed to those PhD holders that are following research career paths and mainly in academia; here, we make sure that the survey is also relevant for those PhD holders who are working as researchers outside academia (e.g. industry) or those PhD holders whose work is not linked to research. In case of universities, the survey was sent to all available contacts of PhD graduates, and our sampling frame was the total population of doctorate completers in the participating universities for the past seven years.

The advantages of such a bottom-up project are many: active participation of partner organisations allows for a certain flexibility in survey design allowing to address matters of specific interest: e.g. some partner organisations opted for an additional module in the questionnaire that evaluated some of their specific PhD supporting activities. With more partners on board, more comparable high-quality data is collected, the survey is designed in a joint way, which allows more sensitivity to the various national contexts; the cost per organisation becomes lower when more organisations join. This retrospective cross-sectional survey of doctorate graduates going several years back can be repeated at regular intervals or be a stand-alone project.

Practical considerations

An important prerequisite for participating in this survey was to have the up-to-date contact information on doctorate holders (or at least a large share of them): in most universities, contact information on doctorate graduates was incomplete and partly out of date. Partner organisations often need to invest a bit of time in order to update their contact database. This, however, is a smart investment as it enables better engagement and network-building with the alumni in other ways as well.

One of the challenges of such a joint initiative was the coordination of various data protection issues. Each partner organisation has to comply with their data protection obligations of their jurisdiction. In practical terms, there was a variety of situations that needed to be coordinated. In all but one case, partner organisations were able to provide the ESF-Science Connect with the list of available up-to-date contact details of their PhD holders/graduates. Where this was not possible due to data protection requirements, the partner organisation sent the survey link and all communication directly to their graduates, in close coordination with the ESF office. The survey participants were informed about the confidentiality arrangements in place.

Early partner response

Consortium partners have been quite pleased with the project progress and coordination so far, and are looking forward to the survey results. These will help partner organisations to improve their programs and PhD support actions, and to understand where doctorate holders from these organisations moved in their careers: e.g. whether they went for research or non-research careers, whether they are employed or unemployed, or are in permanent or temporary positions. The survey will also explore their views on whether doctoral training has enabled them to develop towards their desired career goals, within or outside academia, and will increase understanding of the challenges of the various career paths followed by the doctorate holders.

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