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“I Wish I Would Have Known…”: Characterizing Engineering Students' Reflections on Their Graduate Experiences

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Preparing Engineering Students for Their Professional Practice

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Kanembe Shanachilubwa Pennsylvania State University Orcid 16x16

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I am a second-year doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University in the mechanical engineering department. Member of the Engineering Cognitive Research Laboratory (ECRL). Current research topics include graduate school attrition and student well-being.

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Megan Ellery


Gabriella M. Sallai Pennsylvania State University

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Gaby Sallai is currently a graduate student in the mechanical engineering department at Penn State. She is working under Catherine Berdanier in the Engineering Cognitive Research Laboratory (ECRL). She received her Bachelor's degree from Franklin & Marshall College in physics and women and gender studies.

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Catherine G.P. Berdanier Pennsylvania State University Orcid 16x16

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Catherine G.P. Berdanier is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She earned her B.S. in Chemistry from The University of South Dakota, her M.S. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering and Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. Her research interests include graduate-level engineering education, including inter- and multidisciplinary graduate education, online engineering cognition and learning, and engineering communication.

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“I Wish I Would Have Known…”: Characterizing Engineering Student’s Reflections on their Graduate Experiences

The purpose of this research paper is to characterize the experiences of engineering doctoral students as they reflect upon what they wish they had known prior to beginning their program. Recent engineering graduate enrollment rates have been declining while issues relating to student well-being are on the rise. This work is part of an overarching investigation examining the phenomenon of engineering graduate attrition. To better understand this phenomenon, we conducted N=41 hour-long semi-structured interviews with participants recruited via email survey from the top 50 engineering PhD granting universities in the U.S. Using emergent coding, we analyzed the narratives and themes given by students who are questioning whether to remain in their PhD program and those who made the decision to depart. Students discussed their conception of graduate school before they began and what experiences they anticipated. Participants were asked to reflect on their thoughts surrounding graduate school prior to arrival, how well those thoughts corresponded with their lived experiences, and what information would have been beneficial for them to know earlier on. Findings reveal that participants desire increased guidance on how their graduate programs were structured and a greater understanding of how to develop and maintain functional communication with their advisor. Using these findings, engineering education research and practice communities are better equipped to understand how students conceptualize graduate school and where they are failing to receive guidance and support. This study will contribute to the small body of literature concerning graduate engineering attrition and holds implications for the future of engineering graduate programs and departments in their ongoing efforts to promote the well-being of their students amid the growing crisis relating to student well-being and mental health.

Shanachilubwa, K., & Ellery, M., & Sallai, G. M., & Berdanier, C. G. (2021, July), “I Wish I Would Have Known…”: Characterizing Engineering Students' Reflections on Their Graduate Experiences Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36533

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