Professional Socialization and Career Selection in Ph.D. Science Education

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

We are undertaking a comparative, ethnographic study of science graduate students and faculty that will examine the relationship between professional socialization and career selection in three to five Ph.D. programs in chemistry. Professional socialization here refers to the cultural process of “joining the profession”—in this case, the profession of scientist. Our goal is to describe both explicit and implicit aspects of professional socialization in Ph.D. programs in the sciences; to characterize the impact of professional socialization on students’ career selection; and to analyze the implications of individual career choices for the science workforce at large.


There are two phases to the study:  (1) the mapping study examines general patterns in the incorporation of career and professional preparation across chemistry Ph.D. programs, and (2) intensive case studies at 3-5 departments.  The mapping study incorporates document analysis and telephone interviews with department chairs or graduate program leaders.  For the case studies, the study sample includes graduate students in chemistry doctoral programs, both early and late-stage, as well as faculty and administrators in the same programs and “key witnesses” such as departmental staff who interact with the students.

Research Design: 

This is a cross-sectional and comparative study designed to generate descriptive [case study, ethnographic, and observational] evidence. This project collects original data using personal observation and semi-structured or informal [face-to-face, telephone] interviews. Analysis plans include a grounded theory approach with open-ended coding of verbatim transcripts, followed by analysis by thematic domain. Frequency counts for key codes or domains are used to estimate the weight of opinion.


Our mapping analysis to date has focused on chemistry departments’ responses to the challenges of preparing Ph.D.s for their future professions. In exploring whether and how chemistry departments responded to calls for change, we uncovered other forces driving changes in graduate education and chemistry departments’ priorities. Our publications and presentations elucidate these forces and provide a snapshot of current practices in graduate education in the context of the broader landscape of science research and education.

To date, findings reveal that many chemistry departments are incorporating practices recommended by graduate education research and practice initiatives of the past decade and a half:  paying more attention to informing and advising students about policies and practices for moving through the program; providing more educational opportunities for developing key professional skills such as speaking and writing (in addition to those offered within research groups); offering opportunities to explore careers, such as internships in industry.  Some departments are also taking specific steps to improve recruitment and retention of women and students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.   However, most often these are provided on a piecemeal basis, rather than as part of a comprehensive educational program for doctoral students, and they are seldom assessed.  

Case study data totaling some 100 interviews has been collected at 3 sites and analysis is underway.

Publications & Presentations: 

Laursen, S., Thiry, H., Loshbaugh, H. (2009, March). Research Brief: What have we learned? Across the U.S., Ph.D. programs in chemistry are changing to meet contemporary demands. Ethnography & Evaluation Research, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Thiry, H., Laursen, S., Loshbaugh, H. (2010).  Changing contexts in graduate education: Mapping the landscape of departmental approaches to professional preparation of chemistry Ph.D. students. Poster presented at REESE PI meeting, Pentagon City, VA, March 11-12, 2010.

Loshbaugh, H., Thiry, H., & Laursen, S. (2010).  Doing chemistry in changing times: Mapping trends and tensions in U.S. chemistry graduate education. Understanding Complex Ecologies in a Changing World, 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO, April 30-May 4, 2010.

Loshbaugh, H. L., Laursen, S. L., & Thiry, H. (2011). Reaction to changing times: Trends and tensions in U.S. chemistry graduate education. Journal of Chemical Education, 88, 708-715.

Thiry, H., Loshbaugh, H. G., & Laursen, S. (2011). Charting a course through the chemistry workforce: Misdirected career decision-making among chemistry Ph.D. students. 242nd American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition, Denver, CO, August 28-Sept. 1, 2011.

Loshbaugh, H. G., Thiry, H., & Laursen, S. (2011). Devil in the details: Learning to cross t's and dot i's in the academic workplace. 242nd American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition, Denver, CO, August 28-Sept. 1, 2011.