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Challenges and Benefits of Applied Experience as an Engineering Returner in a Ph.D. Program

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Graduate Education

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Erika Mosyjowski University of Michigan

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Erika Mosyjowski is a PhD candidate in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. She also earned a Master's in Higher Education at Michigan and a Bachelor's in Psychology and Sociology from Case Western Reserve University. Before pursuing a PhD, Erika had a dual appointment in UM's College of Engineering working in student affairs and as a research associate. While grounded in the field of higher education, her research interests include engineering education, particularly as related to innovation, professional identity development, engineering culture, and supporting the recruitment and persistence of underrepresented students within engineering.

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Shanna R. Daly University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Shanna Daly is an Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She has a B.E. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Dayton (2003) and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University (2008). Her research focuses on strategies for design innovations through divergent and convergent thinking as well as through deep needs and community assessments using design ethnography, and translating those strategies to design tools and education. She teaches design and entrepreneurship courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, focusing on front-end design processes.

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Diane L. Peters Kettering University

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Dr. Peters is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering University. Her engineering education research focuses on returning students in graduate education - those who practice in industry for a substantial period of time before returning to school for a graduate degree.

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Returning students, who we define as those PhD students with 5 or more years out of school between their undergraduate and doctoral degrees, represent a largely overlooked pathway through advanced engineering training. Returners contribute to the diversity of perspectives and experiences necessary to address the complex global problems of our contemporary society. Given prior applied work experience in an engineering context, returners are likely to be aware of important engineering problems. Returners’ combination of applied engineering work experience and advanced academic training may position them well to draw on both perspectives in developing innovative engineering solutions. Creative cognition theory suggests that innovation may thrive at intersections, including the combination of ideas from multiple contexts. However, returners represent a relatively small proportion of engineering PhD students and limited research about their experiences suggests they may face particular challenges in their doctoral studies compared to their direct-pathway peers (students who pursue a PhD shortly after their undergraduate education). In an effort to learn more about returners’ perspectives, experiences, research, and approaches to engineering problem solving, our team designed and implemented what is, to our knowledge, the first large-scale mixed-methods study comparing returning and direct-pathway engineering PhD students.

In the first phase of our study, guided by best practices of survey development, we developed the Graduate Student Experiences and Motivations Survey (GSEMS). The GSEMS was administered to nearly 500 returning and direct-pathway students nationally. Survey questions were informed by data from our team’s pilot study of returning students and was grounded in Eccles’ Expectancy Value Framework. The survey examines students’ motivation for pursuing a PhD, their experiences during their degree, their perceived costs and values of earning a PhD, their confidence in their ability to succeed, and their Post-PhD plans.

The second phase of our study included semi-structured interviews with a total of 53 returning and direct-pathway students who participated in the first survey phase. We purposefully recruited participants who were diverse in terms of their returner status, institution, engineering field, gender, and race/ethnicity. Interviews focused on students’ prior experiences, their decision to pursue a PhD, and their research focus and strategies for directing their work, as well as a hypothetical scenario meant to elicit students’ approaches to solving engineering problems and their past experience with various elements of the problem-solving process.

A multi-phase mixed-methods study best suited our research questions by enabling us to gain both depth and breadth of understanding about the experiences of engineering PhD returners, about whom little is known, and compare their experiences to those of direct-pathway students. The proposed paper looks at findings across the quantitative and qualitative data to explore differences in the experiences and perspectives of returners and direct-pathway research related to their PhD programs, engineering work, and approaches to engineering research. Collectively our findings indicated that engineering returners may perceive greater costs associated with pursuing a PhD compared to their direct-pathway peers. However, while returners may face obstacles in pursuing a PhD, our findings also suggested that returners also bring valuable experience and a distinct perspective to their engineering work.

Mosyjowski, E., & Daly, S. R., & Peters, D. L. (2017, June), Challenges and Benefits of Applied Experience as an Engineering Returner in a Ph.D. Program Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28021

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