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NORC to Study Emerging Career Trajectories of Diverse STEM PhD Students

Press Release

Data from current and recent students at NC A&T, NC State, and UNC-Chapel Hill will provide insights into how and why students’ careers evolved during COVID 

CHICAGO, April 27, 2023 — NORC at the University of Chicago launched a study to fill critical gaps in research related to the career trajectories of PhD students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The project will investigate how and why STEM doctoral students’ career motivations and aspirations shifted in the face of major events from the past few years—the pandemic, renewed focus on racial and social justice, the politicization of science and teaching, and widespread economic instability. 

“We have extensive evidence about the jobs PhD students select after they graduate, but we have much less information about why they chose a particular career path,” said James R. Neumeister, senior research scientist at NORC and the study’s principal investigator. “We really don’t know how radically the major social events over the past few years changed the way doctoral students plan to exercise their skills and expertise moving forward. This study will provide a lot of insight into those questions.” 

The study has three stages. The first, which launched April 14, 2023, involves surveying over 10,000 current and recent STEM doctoral students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research team will then conduct in-depth focus groups this summer and fall with several hundred students to learn more about how and why STEM doctoral students make career decisions. Finally, the research team will analyze the collected data. Each partner institution will receive a report summarizing their results to share with their communities.

One of the goals of the project is to foster an elite, diverse STEM workforce committed to addressing and solving pressing societal problems. To do so, the team incorporated culturally responsive research practices throughout the project by centering the needs and experiences of groups who have been historically marginalized or excluded from STEM environments. The team is working closely with an advisory board comprised of a diverse array of doctoral students, alumni, and faculty who are helping the research team to guide, shape, and interpret the data collected during the project. 

“We have extensive evidence about the jobs PhD students select after they graduate, but we have much less information about why they chose a particular career path,”

James R. Neumeister

Senior Research Scientist

“We have extensive evidence about the jobs PhD students select after they graduate, but we have much less information about why they chose a particular career path,”

“The research team brings a culturally responsive lens to every step of the project to reflect the needs of the broad range of employers seeking PhD-level talent. From day one, the team has incorporated a broad range of perspectives and voices, especially in the composition of the advisory board, which consists of current students and alumni from the participating institutions, such as NC State,” said Peter J. Harries, PhD, Dean of The Graduate School and Professor, Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University.

The research team is taking care to explore influences that have traditionally been ignored or omitted from studies of the career pathways of STEM PhD students, including students’ experiences with discrimination both within their doctoral programs and in their broader lives, how their academic identity has been integrated with their social and personal identities, and the extent to which their career decisions are motivated by a desire to address broader social issues and concerns.

“Persistent inequities in the retention and success of historically marginalized students throughout the STEM academic and career pipeline remain a critical issue—especially at the PhD level. This innovative research team is unpacking how science identity, social motivations, and specific training experiences influence students’ career decisions and the cutting-edge work they wish to pursue,” said Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, RD, Dean of Graduate School, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Nutrition and Medicine, and Co-Director of the UNC Nutrition Obesity Research Center. 

NORC and its partners at NC A&T, NC State, and UNC-Chapel Hill will distribute its findings widely, including articles in scholarly publications, briefings of government and academic leaders, and conference presentations.

“As the country’s largest Historically Black College or University (HBCU), North Carolina A&T produces more African American engineers than any other university in the country. Understanding our students’ career motivations and decisions is vital to the success of future generations of historically marginalized STEM graduates and the overall diversity and success of our country’s STEM enterprise,” said Clay Gloster Jr., PhD, Vice Provost for Graduate Research and Dean of the Graduate College, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The study is led by researchers from NORC’s Higher Education Analytics Center—senior research scientist James R. Neumeister, PhD, senior fellow Debra Stewart, PhD, research scientist Lisa Davidson, PhD, and senior research director Erin Knepler, PhD—and conducted in partnership with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

About NORC at the University of Chicago

NORC at the University of Chicago conducts research and analysis that decision-makers trust. As a nonpartisan research organization and a pioneer in measuring and understanding the world, we have studied almost every aspect of the human experience and every major news event for more than eight decades. Today, we partner with government, corporate, and nonprofit clients around the world to provide the objectivity and expertise necessary to inform the critical decisions facing society.

Contact: For more information, please contact Eric Young at NORC at or (703) 217-6814 (cell).

About the Higher Education Analytics Center  
The Higher Education Analytics Center (HEAC) provides data and insights to empower postsecondary institutions to fulfill their mission and create policies that benefit students, alumni, educators, and academic leaders. HEAC staff bring renowned technical and methodological expertise, informed by their deep commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This Center helps institutions manage change, innovation, and the fast-shifting postsecondary landscape. 


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