Where are they now? Job outcomes for recent SUNY crim Phds

The other day I noticed one of my PhD cohort mates, like me, took a private sector data science job. So of the 6 that finished their Phds in my cohort, 2 of us are now in private sector and the rest are professors. I was curious the overall rate for a larger sample.

There is probably some better official source, but I was able to do a search in Proquest dissertations (SUNY we needed to submit it there), for "State University of New York at Albany" AND "School of Criminal Justice" published between 2010 through 2020 and it scooped up a pretty good sample (with a few false positives I eliminated). I then added in a few people I noticed missing in that set, in the end 69 total over the 11 years (6 defenses per year actually seemed high to me). (Using the WayBack machine you can look at old Phd profiles or the old list of dissertations, but I am not sure of the completeness of either.) Then I filled in their current main job best I could into professor, private sector, university research center, think tank, government (and a few I did not even hazard a guess), based on LinkedIn/google searches/personal knowledge.

Here is the spreadsheet, let me know if you think I miscategorized you or your dissertation is missing altogether. Filtering based on the year of the dissertation is not the same as cohort (you could have started along time ago and more recently defended), but looks to me a pretty reasonable sample of “recent” Phd’s from SUNY Albany Criminal Justice program. Also missing at this Proquest search phase is likely to be missing at random (the few who were not scooped up in my search I see no reason to think are systematic based on Proquest’s idiosyncratic search). But missing in terms of me being able to look once you are in the sample is not (since if you are a professor you probably come up in a general google search for your university).

I tended to be liberal for who I listed as professor (this includes temp teaching jobs and postdocs, but not people who are adjuncts). Many people not in the professor list though were formerly professors (myself included), but tried to figure out the current main job for individuals.

The breakdown for the 69 dissertations is then:

Prof          34  49%
Gov           18  26%
Private        6   9%
Univ Research  3   4%
Think Tank     1   1%
Don't Know     7  10%

So private sector is lower overall than in my cohort, only 10% over the time period (and highest possible sample estimate is 19%, if all 7 don’t know are actually in private sector). Government jobs being at 26% I don’t find surprising, think tank and private is lower than I would have guessed though.

But from this I take away around 50% of recent PhDs in criminal justice from SUNY go on to be professors. For prospective PhDs, this estimate is also conditional on completing the PhD (they aren’t in the sample if they did not finish). If you include those individuals Gov/Private would go up in overall proportions.

Again if missing in the list or miscategorized let me know and I will update the post.

The value of a PhD

For my current work as a data scientist, I spend most of my time writing SQL queries, generating some sort of predictive model on that data using python, and automating those data pipelines using additional command line scripts. Pretty much nothing coding wise I do on a day to day basis I learned in my entire educational career.

The only specific coding classes I took in school were SAS in undergrad and SPSS in grad. All other coding was in Stata and a very tiny bit in R, both incidental to statistical classes. Even those should hardly count, as all it entails is load a dataset and run reg y x or something similar.

That focuses on the software engineering side – the other side of being a data scientist is essentially being an applied mathematician. That may sound fancy, but the work I do I like to think is more akin to accounting with probabilities (where I have to personally create models to estimate the probabilities). While I had extensive quantitative training in graduate school, again nothing I was taught even remotely resembles the mathematics I use on a regular basis at my job.

My social science education entirely focused on causal inference, estimating parameters on the right hand side of the regression equation. I did not cover prediction/forecasting/machine-learning one iota in my classes. I did not even have any classes on cost-benefit analysis, which is more akin to me calculating potential return on investment when I am creating new machine learning models for my company.

The only thing I do regularly at my job you could reasonably point to specific educational training/prep on was presenting results in PowerPoint presentations.

That being said, no way I would be in my current position if I did not have a PhD. For a potential counter-factual, I debated on dropping out of undergrad at one point and going to community college to install HVAC systems. I feel pretty comfortable assuming I would not have ended up as a data scientist if I took that career path. (Before you think to poo-poo on that career path choice, it is easily possible my personal net worth would be in the same ballpark at this point in my life in that counter-factual installing HVAC world. There are significant opportunity costs you are eating when you pursue a PhD.)

So what exactly was the value of my PhD? While you take some classes as a PhD student, I don’t see the main benefit of those as being vocational in nature. When pursuing a PhD it is a full time endeavor, and it is the entire environment that marks it as a major difference from undergraduate education. Pretty much every conversation you have as a PhD student is focused on science.

A second major difference is that you are not a passive consumer of scientific research – you have bridged to becoming a producer of that knowledge. A PhD dissertation by its nature is very sink or swim – you are expected to come up with a particular research topic/agenda, and conduct the appropriate analysis to investigate that particular topic, then share your results with the world. This is very different than working in a job where someone tells you what to do – you show up in the morning and you have 100% latitude to pursue whatever you want.

These two things together I believe are where the value lies in a PhD. The independence necessary to be a successful in a PhD is by its nature not something you can get via prior work experience (unless you count say starting your own business). This coupled with the scientific environment provides an atmosphere where constant learning is necessary to get to the finish line of the dissertation. Even if I still was an academic, it is always necessary for me to consume new material, teach myself new things, and apply that to the work I am pursuing.

So while I did not learn python programming or machine learning in grad school, I just go out, try to consume as much as I can on the material, and apply that knowledge to solve the current problems I am dealing with. There will always be something new I need to teach myself while I am still working, but that is OK. I have the means to teach myself those things from my PhD experience. I am not sure I would have really ever gotten to that point just by focusing on vocational aspects (e.g. taking classes on machine learning or programming) – I think I only got to that point by having to pursue my own independent research.


I’ve been musing this more as potential students ask me whether it is worth it to pursue a PhD. I have mixed feelings, but have settled on this simple dichotomy – if you are only pursuing a PhD because you want to teach, I have grave reservations against recommending a PhD. The supply for these professor positions greatly outpace the demand from universities. So even if you do well as a student, there is no guarantee you will get a tenure track position. In the current market where there are dozens of really good candidates for any position, network effects can dominate that decision.

But, if you are more open to other potential positions, such as public sector researcher positions, think tanks, or private sector data science, I feel more comfortable in saying going for the PhD is a reasonable career choice.

Unfortunately, current education in terms of preparing you to be competitive for private sector data science is somewhat lacking across the social sciences. As I stated at the beginning of this post, I did not personally learn any of the tools I use regularly at my job via traditional education, but more as ancillary to my particular research interests. To follow in my path, the research you pursue needs to somewhat match the skills the current market wants, and these include:

  • predictive modeling (e.g. tree based models, boosted models, deep learning)
  • legitimate coding skills in python/R, as well as tools like git/Docker
  • working with moderately large datasets (SQL, Hadoop, or online AWS)
  • data visualization to explain results/models

I am hoping my former colleagues in social sciences will do a better job of expanding the graduate curricula to better teach these skills. They have utility for the more traditional research as well. I am not holding my breath though for that. So in the meantime if you are pursuing a PhD in the social sciences, and you want to pursue a data science job (or simply hedge in case you cannot land a tenure track gig), these are skills you need to develop on your own while also doing your PhD.