Asee peer logo

Discrimination & Identity: How Engineering Graduate Students Navigate Pathways to Persistence

Download Paper |


2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count


Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors

author page

Elan Hope North Carolina State University at Raleigh


Matthew Bahnson North Carolina State University at Raleigh

visit author page

Postdoc in Engineering Education at Penn State with Catherine Berdanier.

visit author page


Adam Kirn University of Nevada, Reno


Derrick Satterfield University of Nevada, Reno

visit author page

Derrick Satterfield is a doctoral candidate in Engineering Education at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research focuses on engineering graduate students' experiences and motivation centered on career planning and preparation.

visit author page

author page

Anitra Alexander

author page

Alexis Briggs

author page

Laila Allam North Carolina State University at Raleigh

Download Paper |


The goal of this project is to understand experiences of bias and discrimination in engineering graduate education and their effect on graduate engineering identity and degree persistence. Through a mixed-methods approach, we are investigating the following research questions: How do engineering graduate students conceptualize their own identities and experience bias and discrimination based on those identities? How does existing as a marginalized person in a graduate engineering program and experiencing bias and discrimination affect engineering identity? How does engineering identity mitigate the effects of experiencing discrimination and bias? How can racial, gendered, and other identities support engineering identity development? How can identity be leveraged to support student persistence, performance, and participation in graduate engineering?

We have completed Phase 1, a qualitative analysis of semi-structured interviews with graduate engineering students. Results from this phase have provided some answers to RQs 1 and 2. Graduate engineering students experience discrimination on the basis of race and gender throughout their graduate programs, primarily from peers and faculty. These experiences of discrimination detract from a positive engineering identity, and contribute to mental health concerns. Graduate engineering students who experience discrimination seem to accept that these experiences are part of the graduate education experience and unavoidable.

We have also completed data collection and initial analyses of Phase 2, a nationally representative survey of 913 graduate engineering students from 113 different universities in the United States. From this phase, we developed and validated the Discrimination in Engineering Graduate Education (DEGrE) Scale to identify and measure gender and race/ethnicity-based discrimination experiences specific to engineering graduate education. Through exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis, we found six types of discrimination specific to engineering graduate education: 1) participation; 2) faculty treatment in classes; 3) faculty treatment in labs; 4) sexism; 5) peer treatment; and 6) racism from advisors.

With the newly developed DeGRE scale, we then investigated the associations between discrimination experiences, engineering identity, and doctoral degree completion intentions among a national sample of doctoral engineering students (RQ3). Using structural equation modeling, we examined whether the associations between discrimination and degree completion intentions are mediated by three components of engineering identity: interest, recognition, and performance/competence. We also examined whether this model varied by gender, and race/ethnicity. Graduate students’ discrimination experiences were negatively associated with graduate engineering identity and degree completion intentions. Further, graduate engineering identity mediated associations between discrimination experiences and degree completion intentions. These pathways varied in strength and direction by both gender and race/ethnicity. Phase 3 of this project is in progress to address RQ4. We are conducting follow up semi-structured interviews with the participants from Phase 1 to understand how their experiences have changed over time, and how their racial and gendered identities have influenced their decisions to persist in their original degree program, change programs, or leave the original program. Preliminary findings from this phase will be discussed in relation to findings from phases 1 and 2.

Graduate engineering students leave doctoral programs without their intended degrees at high rates with students from minoritized groups leaving at higher rates than their peers. Altogether, findings from this project highlight the prevalence of race and gender based discrimination in graduate engineering and the potential of engineering identity as a protective interpersonal factor that can help sustain students through unconscionable and demoralizing experiences. Our findings also suggest that engineering identity is not enough to redress the pervasive impact of discrimination. The culture of engineering graduate education must be restructured to minimize racism and sexism to support and retain the next generation of engineers.

Hope, E., & Bahnson, M., & Kirn, A., & Satterfield, D., & Alexander, A., & Briggs, A., & Allam, L. (2022, August), Discrimination & Identity: How Engineering Graduate Students Navigate Pathways to Persistence Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2022 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015