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Developing and Sustaining a Research Group: A Novel Approach to Onboarding Doctoral Students

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Mental Health of Graduate Students

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

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Madeline Polmear University of Florida Orcid 16x16

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Madeline Polmear is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering at the University of Florida. Her research interests include workforce development and engineering ethics education.

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Denise Rutledge Simmons P.E. University of Florida Orcid 16x16

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Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., PE, LEED-AP, is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at the University of Florida. She holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in civil engineering and a graduate certificate in engineering education – all from Clemson University. She has over ten years of construction and civil engineering experience working for energy companies and as a project management consultant.

Dr. Simmons has extensive experience leading and conducting multi-institutional, workforce-related research and outreach. She is a leader in research investigating the competencies professionals need to compete in and sustain the construction workforce. Dr. Simmons oversees the Simmons Research Lab (, which is home to a dynamic, interdisciplinary mix of graduate researchers and postdoctoral researchers who work together to explore human, technology and society interactions to transform civil engineering education and practice with an emphasis on understanding hazard recognition, competencies, satisfaction, personal resilience, organizational culture, training, informal learning and social considerations. The broader impact of this work lies in achieving and sustaining safe, productive, and inclusive project organizations composed of engaged, competent and diverse people. The SRL is supported by multiple research grants, including a CAREER award, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Dr. Simmons is a former project director of the Summer Transportation Institute (STI) at South Carolina State University and Savannah River Environmental Sciences Field Station (SRESFS). Both programs were aimed at recruiting, retaining and training women and minorities in transportation, environmental science and engineering and natural resources-related fields of study. As SRESFS director, she led a board composed of 29 colleges and universities.

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Starting in a new institution, degree program, and research group can be a challenging transition for doctoral students. Although department and university orientations cover rules, deadlines, and resources, there are often fewer formal opportunities to onboard new graduate students in research groups. As a result, students can experience difficulty with a lack of understanding expectations and responsibilities, lack of communication with their mentors, and lack of community with their peers. To address these challenges and formalize the development of a lab’s culture, a civil engineering research group at a public research-intensive university in the southeastern United States participated in a retreat when three of its five members joined. The retreat took place over four days prior to the start of the fall 2019 semester at an off campus location. The motivation for the retreat was grounded in John P. Kotter’s Leading Change process to create organizational transformation and improve the onboarding experience of the new doctoral students and postdoctoral associates. Given the high attrition rates in graduate education, the retreat was also designed to foster retention by integrating attributes of a workforce sustainability model.

The retreat was framed around four objectives: (1) build community, (2) communicate group norms and expectations, (3) develop individual strategic plans, (4) and introduce research skills. The retreat encouraged individual and collective reflection on goals, deliverables, and expectations. The experience was guided by the notion of beginning with the end in mind and, in this case, meant aligning individual professional development plans with long-term career goals and vision of the research lab. The retreat was designed to construct a solid foundation on which to build individual and shared success.

This paper will describe the eight steps in the Leading Change process and its application to the pre-retreat planning, retreat assignments and activities, and post-retreat. The Workforce Sustainability model will also be discussed to illustrate how the eight attributes support the sustained performance of a research group and how each were intentionally cultivated during the retreat.

Since self-reflection can help illuminate meaningful personal insights, each research group member was asked to submit written reflection on lessons learned, key takeaways, and outcomes from the retreat. Initial thematic analysis of the reflections revealed the value of the retreat in establishing connectivity and communication among members and creating an environment in which the doctoral students felt nurtured in their personal and professional development. Short-term effects serving as indicators of organizational transformation are an essential component in the Leading Change process and will also be discussed. This work details a novel approach to onboarding new members of a research group and aims to demonstrate the value of translating organizational change and workforce sustainability to academic environments including the development of a productive culture, socialization of new doctoral students, and establishment of expectations.

Polmear, M., & Simmons, D. R. (2020, June), Developing and Sustaining a Research Group: A Novel Approach to Onboarding Doctoral Students Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34425

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