From Our Interviewers: Reflections on the Process

From Our Interviewers: Reflections on the Process

BY: Catherine Nygren

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Editor’s note: This is part 3 of our series of reflections on the TRaCE project. Don’t forget to check our 50th narrative, written by Michelle La Flamme, and our posts on the qualitative process of writing narratives and the quantitative data collection and analysis.


At the end of Stage 2 of TRaCE’s pilot project, we asked for feedback from our grad student interviewers. What were the highlights? What worked well, and what didn’t? The following paragraphs synthesize several responses.

Working on the TRaCE project was summarized by one interviewer as “an invaluable, if at times complicated, experience,” a sentiment expressed, in one way or another, by many of our graduate student research assistants. One recurring theme was the personal benefit of being involved. One interviewer found the process “cathartic,” while many others were grateful to be involved in the process. The interviews were interesting and engaging, and highlighted many aspects of the PhD experience, such as impostor syndrome, the difficulty of finding social, professional, and institutional support, and the “luck” of the academic job market. Though discussing such issues can be stressful, our interviewers still seemed to find the majority of their interviews reassuring, whether because of the frank conversations around the diversity of PhD paths both in the program and afterwards or because of the mentorship and advice from graduates of their department.

Many aspects of this interviewing process worked well, according to our RAs. Going into the project, the graduate students appreciated the clearly defined expectations and ongoing support of the research coordinators, as well as the accessible, clear description of the project. Structurally, the long window of time to contact and interview the PhD graduates was beneficial and, in many cases, necessary: careers, life events, and even misplaced emails sometimes required adjusting schedules. In particular, the RAs praised the open-ended nature of the questions and discussions, which lent itself well to building a rapport between the RA and the PhD graduate and to covering a wide breadth of material. Face-to-face interviews and being from the same department and institution also aided in the fluidity of conversation.

However, our graduate research assistants also had advice on how to improve the next iteration of the project. They shared the concern of the rest of the team that more successful PhD graduates were open to sharing their stories, skewing the results and hiding the stories of graduates who weren’t on a tenure-track—or even academic—path. Many of our interviewers, and several of the participants, think including people who dropped out of their doctoral programs would be valuable, as well. They also noted that the timing of the project, with the interview stage beginning in March, made contacting people working in academia difficult and may have lowered the response rate.

Although, as noted, the open-ended questions were extremely useful, some baseline questions, like prior education and current career, would have been beneficial. Further fine-tuning of questions, including the order, the overlap of some subjects, and some specific questions that were difficult to answer (such as the number of RAships), was recommended to streamline discussion. For better or for worse, the 30-45 minute allotment per interview was not nearly enough time, with most interviews stretching upwards of 60 minutes.

Upon reflection, our interviewers also wanted more training for interview skills and handling ethics and diversity. Navigating issues of privacy and confidentiality before, during, and after the interview process was difficult, as it was sometimes unclear exactly which information would be shared with who at which part of the process. Even with the meticulous consent forms, some participants were unclear exactly what they were signing up for.

Finally, many of our interviewers highlighted concerns about Stage 3 of TRaCE, where departments and institutions bring PhDs, working in academic, alt-ac, or non-ac jobs, back to speak about post-PhD paths. Many participants, though eager, wanted clarification of what involvement and future participation with TRaCE looked like. At times, it was difficult for the interviewer to reassure them that there would be opportunities for future engagement, especially considering the prevailing feeling among participants that nothing will change. Similarly, some interviewers pointed out the potential for departments to treat the community-building aspect of the project as a way of diverting the work of “improving” the PhD experience onto current students and graduates, rather than seriously examining how their structures, funding, and purpose contribute to experiences both within the program and afterwards.

In general, the feedback from our graduate student research assistants was positive, and a recognition of the significance of the project and its potential was repeated throughout the responses. This appreciation, however, was balanced with an awareness of some issues that needed fine-tuning for TRaCE 2.0, as well as with tensions connected to the practicalities of shifting departmental culture.

Editor’s note: This is part 3 of our series of reflections on the TRaCE project. Don’t forget to check our 50th narrative, written by Michelle La Flamme, and our posts on the qualitative process of writing narratives and the quantitative data collection and analysis.


At the end of Stage 2 of TRaCE’s pilot project, we asked for feedback from our grad student interviewers. What were the highlights? What worked well, and what didn’t? The following paragraphs synthesize several responses.

Working on the TRaCE project was summarized by one interviewer as “an invaluable, if at times complicated, experience,” a sentiment expressed, in one way or another, by many of our graduate student research assistants. One recurring theme was the personal benefit of being involved. One interviewer found the process “cathartic,” while many others were grateful to be involved in the process. The interviews were interesting and engaging, and highlighted many aspects of the PhD experience, such as impostor syndrome, the difficulty of finding social, professional, and institutional support, and the “luck” of the academic job market. Though discussing such issues can be stressful, our interviewers still seemed to find the majority of their interviews reassuring, whether because of the frank conversations around the diversity of PhD paths both in the program and afterwards or because of the mentorship and advice from graduates of their department.

Many aspects of this interviewing process worked well, according to our RAs. Going into the project, the graduate students appreciated the clearly defined expectations and ongoing support of the research coordinators, as well as the accessible, clear description of the project. Structurally, the long window of time to contact and interview the PhD graduates was beneficial and, in many cases, necessary: careers, life events, and even misplaced emails sometimes required adjusting schedules. In particular, the RAs praised the open-ended nature of the questions and discussions, which lent itself well to building a rapport between the RA and the PhD graduate and to covering a wide breadth of material. Face-to-face interviews and being from the same department and institution also aided in the fluidity of conversation.

However, our graduate research assistants also had advice on how to improve the next iteration of the project. They shared the concern of the rest of the team that more successful PhD graduates were open to sharing their stories, skewing the results and hiding the stories of graduates who weren’t on a tenure-track—or even academic—path. Many of our interviewers, and several of the participants, think including people who dropped out of their doctoral programs would be valuable, as well. They also noted that the timing of the project, with the interview stage beginning in March, made contacting people working in academia difficult and may have lowered the response rate.

Although, as noted, the open-ended questions were extremely useful, some baseline questions, like prior education and current career, would have been beneficial. Further fine-tuning of questions, including the order, the overlap of some subjects, and some specific questions that were difficult to answer (such as the number of RAships), was recommended to streamline discussion. For better or for worse, the 30-45 minute allotment per interview was not nearly enough time, with most interviews stretching upwards of 60 minutes.

Upon reflection, our interviewers also wanted more training for interview skills and handling ethics and diversity. Navigating issues of privacy and confidentiality before, during, and after the interview process was difficult, as it was sometimes unclear exactly which information would be shared with who at which part of the process. Even with the meticulous consent forms, some participants were unclear exactly what they were signing up for.

Finally, many of our interviewers highlighted concerns about Stage 3 of TRaCE, where departments and institutions bring PhDs, working in academic, alt-ac, or non-ac jobs, back to speak about post-PhD paths. Many participants, though eager, wanted clarification of what involvement and future participation with TRaCE looked like. At times, it was difficult for the interviewer to reassure them that there would be opportunities for future engagement, especially considering the prevailing feeling among participants that nothing will change. Similarly, some interviewers pointed out the potential for departments to treat the community-building aspect of the project as a way of diverting the work of “improving” the PhD experience onto current students and graduates, rather than seriously examining how their structures, funding, and purpose contribute to experiences both within the program and afterwards.

In general, the feedback from our graduate student research assistants was positive, and a recognition of the significance of the project and its potential was repeated throughout the responses. This appreciation, however, was balanced with an awareness of some issues that needed fine-tuning for TRaCE 2.0, as well as with tensions connected to the practicalities of shifting departmental culture.

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