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Characterizing Research Process Sophistication in Engineering Ph.D. Students and the Influence of Prior Experiences

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Graduate Student Needs and Experiences, Exploring Graduate Funding and Undergraduate Research Experiences

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

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Paper Authors


Erika Mosyjowski University of Michigan

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Erika Mosyjowski is a PhD student in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary 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, 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 of 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.

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Steven J. Skerlos University of Michigan

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Professor Steven J. Skerlos is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. He is a tenured faculty member in Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering. He also serves as a UM Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Sustainability.

He is Director of Sustainability Education Programs in the College of Engineering and Co-Director of the Engineering Sustainable Systems Program. He is Chief Science Officer of Fusion Coolant Systems.

Professor Skerlos has gained national recognition and press for his research and teaching in the fields of technology policy and sustainable design. He has co-founded two successful start-up companies (Accuri Cytometers and Fusion Coolant Systems), co-founded BLUElab, served as Director of the Graduate Program in Mechanical Engineering (2009-2012), and served as associate and guest editor for four different academic journals.

His Ph.D. students in the Environmental and Sustainable Technologies Laboratory have addressed sustainability challenges in the fields of systems design, technology selection, manufacturing, and water.

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Megan Kaczanowski University of Michigan

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Topic areas: professional/returning graduate student experiences, graduate student experiences, research and problem solving skills

One goal of engineering PhD programs is to support students’ independence as researchers and it is expected that by the time they have completed a doctoral degree students will have developed the skills necessary to manage an independent research project. Engineering PhD students need to be able to consider the broader context and potential impact of their research, identify and frame an appropriate research question, developing an approach to studying their topic of interest, and to have the experience and intuition necessary to steer the project and navigate challenges that may arise. One might characterize such skills as elements of research process sophistication. However, while experienced researchers may be able a sophisticated application of such skills in which they “know it when they see it,” a need exists for a classification system to consistently and systematically represent students’ varying levels of research process sophistication.

In this paper, we detail our process for developing a categorization system for varying levels of research process sophistication. We developed emergent categories based on students’ interview responses to a hypothetical research scenario. We interviewed over 50 students with diverse prior experiences, leading us to expect variation in the sophistication of their reported approaches to research. Some of these students had extensive work experiences between completing their undergraduate degree and pursuing their PhD, a group we call returners. The other students were direct-pathway students, who had little time between their undergraduate and PhD programs, however some of these students had co-op or internship experiences that could contribute to how they approach research. Our interviews included a focus on how students think about research and the extent to which their past experiences influence their research process. To explore this relationship, we presented students with a hypothetical independent research scenario and asked how they would approach particular elements of the process, including how they identify an important problem, select an approach, manage unexpected challenges and negative feedback, and use intuition to steer the project. We also asked students about specific experiences they had related to each of these research process elements.

In total, we identified four emergent categories of responses that differ along a number of characteristics, including the level of confidence expressed, understanding of needs in the field, level of self-determination in selecting and steering a research project, comfort with one’s intuition and knowledge, level of reflection, the specificity and complexity of the response, and the extent to which motivation is internal or external. We draw on problem-solving, self-authorship, and creativity literature in our discussion of our categories of research process sophistication and draw on a sample of interview responses to illustrate each category. The four categories of research process sophistication described in this paper will later be used to characterize the responses of all returning and direct pathway students in our study and better understand how students’ past education, work, and other experiences relate to their engineering research process.

Mosyjowski, E., & Daly, S. R., & Peters, D. L., & Skerlos, S. J., & Kaczanowski, M. (2016, June), Characterizing Research Process Sophistication in Engineering Ph.D. Students and the Influence of Prior Experiences Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26483

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