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Investigation of the Work Environment of Engineering Ph.D.s in the United States

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Professional Aspects of Graduate Engineering Programs

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.860.1 - 25.860.23



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Paper Authors


Joy Watson University of South Carolina

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Joy Watson is currently a STEM education consultant working with private industry, academia and the U.S. Navy to develop a logistics/IT course for low-income, high potential middle and high school students. She completed her Ph.D. in the College of Engineering at the University of South Carolina in Aug. 2011. She obtained her B.S. and M.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Before entering the doctoral program, she worked as a process engineer in the pulp and paper industry and as patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. At the University of South Carolina, Watson worked in two different middle school classrooms as a NSF GK-12/Pi Fellow. While at the University of Tennessee, she participated in the co-op (industrial internship) program and was appointed a co-op ambassador to mentor undergraduate students pursuing industrial internships. She also has mentored undergraduate research assistants during her master’s and Ph.D. programs. Her primary research interests include preparing doctoral students for industry and academic careers and the rheology of ionic liquids and cellulose solutions.

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Jed S. Lyons University of South Carolina

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Jed Lyons is a professor of mechanical engineering and the Faculty Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of South Carolina.

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Investigation of the Work Environment of Engineering Ph.D.s in the United StatesThe traditional expectations of engineering Ph.D. students are that they will become scholar-teachers at a research university or researchers in an academic or a national lab, performing basicresearch [1, 2, 3]. In recent decades, there has been a shift in employment options forengineering Ph.D.s from academic to non-academic positions. Currently, the majority ofengineering Ph.D.s in the United States work in for-profit organizations, ranging from largecorporations to small businesses [4]. The goal of this study is to investigate both the researchenvironment and the skills needed by engineering Ph.D.s who work in such organizations.This research was conducted using grounded theory approach to guide the development andanalysis of semi-structured phone surveys with six Ph.D. engineers working in large corporationsand six Ph.D. engineers working in small businesses. The results were then analyzed bysummarizing the surveys and using a constant comparative method in order to allow a theory toemerge in a systematically through explicit coding and analytic procedures.In general, the participants in this study felt well prepared for careers in industry. However,results of this study suggest that working in interdisciplinary teams and developing anunderstanding of the economics and goals of an industrial work environment are areas that couldbe better addressed by engineering Ph.D. degree programs. Participants from both largecorporations and small businesses frequently use teams to accomplish the company’s goals,where each team member must possess a unique technical skill set and excellent communicationskills. Results suggest the economics and goals of industry are different from the economics andgoals of academia. The study also suggests that engineering Ph.D.s in industry need to possesscritical and analytical thinking skills. This paper presents the summaries of case studies,discusses common themes, and suggests implications for engineering doctoral degree programs.References[1] J. Metcalfe, "The Changing Nature of Doctoral Programmes," in The Formative Years of Scholars, Proceedings for the Symposium held at the Haga Forum, Stockholm, 2005.[2] Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientist and Engineers. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.[3] J. Bieber and L. Worley, "Conceptualizing the Academic Life: Graduate Students' Perspectives," The Journal of Higher Eduation, vol. 77, pp. 1009-1035, 2006.[4] National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. 2009. Characteristics of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in the United States: 2006. Detailed Statistical Tables NSF 09-317. Arlington, VA. Available at Accessed 24 January 2011.

Watson, J., & Lyons, J. S. (2012, June), Investigation of the Work Environment of Engineering Ph.D.s in the United States Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21617

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