Applying inter-rater reliability to improve consistency in classifying PhD career outcomes

F1000Res. 2020 Jan 9:9:8. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.21046.2. eCollection 2020.


Background: There has been a groundswell of national support for transparent tracking and dissemination of PhD career outcomes. In 2017, individuals from multiple institutions and professional organizations met to create the Unified Career Outcomes Taxonomy (UCOT 2017), a three-tiered taxonomy to help institutions uniformly classify career outcomes of PhD graduates. Early adopters of UCOT 2017, noted ambiguity in some categories of the career taxonomy, raising questions about its consistent application within and across institutions. Methods: To test and evaluate the consistency of UCOT 2017, we calculated inter-rater reliability across two rounds of iterative refinement of the career taxonomy, classifying over 800 PhD alumni records via nine coders. Results: We identified areas of discordance in the taxonomy, and progressively refined UCOT 2017 and an accompanying Guidance Document to improve inter-rater reliability across all three tiers of the career taxonomy. However, differing interpretations of the classifications, especially for faculty classifications in the third tier, resulted in continued discordance among the coders. We addressed this discordance with clarifying language in the Guidance Document, and proposed the addition of a flag system for identification of the title, rank, and prefix of faculty members. This labeling system provides the additional benefit of highlighting the granularity and the intersectionality of faculty job functions, while maintaining the ability to sort by - and report data on - faculty and postdoctoral trainee roles, as is required by some national and federal reporting guidelines. We provide specific crosswalk guidance for how a user may choose to incorporate our suggestions while maintaining the ability to report in accordance with UCOT 2017. Conclusions: Our findings underscore the importance of detailed guidance documents, coder training, and periodic collaborative review of career outcomes taxonomies as PhD careers evolve in the global workforce. Implications for coder-training and use of novice coders are also discussed.

Keywords: STEM education; career outcomes; career taxonomy; higher education; workforce development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Career Choice*
  • Education, Graduate*
  • Faculty*
  • Humans
  • Reproducibility of Results