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This research paper presents findings from a preliminary study of undergraduate engineering students’ perspectives on the role of professional merit in engineering career advancement. The ideology of “meritocracy,” i.e., the belief that personal and career successes result primarily from individual talent, training, and hard work, is a core part of engineering culture that may lead engineers to view social justice concerns as irrelevant to engineering. However, more research is needed to understand the extent to which engineering students hold meritocratic beliefs and how these beliefs are informed by their prior experiences. Our study thus explored the following research questions: RQ1) To what extent do engineering students feel that “professional merit” is the primary factor in engineering career advancement? And RQ2) To what extent do engineering students feel that professional merit should be the primary factor in engineering career advancement?
We conducted interviews with 30 upper-level engineering students. During interviews, we provided students with the following statement, synthesized from definitions of the meritocratic ideology from literature: “Recognition and access to professional/leadership opportunities in engineering is primarily based on professional merit.” We first asked participants to describe whether our statement aligned or did not align with their experiences in engineering education or work environments and to provide an example if possible. We then asked participants to describe to what extent they felt our statement represented what engineering should or should not be like. To answer our two research questions, two members of our research team identified key themes that emerged in response to our first (align or not align) and second (should or should not be) interview questions, respectively.
Participants described complex perspectives on the role of professional merit in engineering career advancement. Related to RQ1, 20 out of 30 participants indicated that, based on their experiences, professional merit (including interpersonal skills) was a primary factor that determined recognition and access to professional/leadership opportunities in engineering. However, participants also critiqued the idea that engineering career advancement was based solely on merit: 15 out of 30 participants highlighted personal connections as a key factor that influenced career opportunities, and eight participants described how white men from wealthy backgrounds experienced systemic career advantages. Related to RQ2, 16 out of 30 participants indicated that recognition and access to professional/leadership opportunities should be based on professional merit (including interpersonal skills). Meanwhile, six participants indicated that merit cannot be the sole consideration in engineering career advancement because such a system would exclude inexperienced engineers who still need to build their merit. Another six participants indicated that racial and gender diversity should be considered in the hiring and promotion of engineers to account for societal inequities. Four other participants suggested that “merit” is socially constructed and that an advancement system focused only on merit may overlook highly qualified candidates. Our findings thus highlight several ways that engineering students’ perspectives on engineering career advancement align with and diverge from meritocratic ideologies. These findings may be used to inform DEI-related engineering pedagogies, and to support students who resist dominant narratives that engineering is meritocratic.
Loweth, R., & Hoffman, S., & Daly, S., & Paborsky, L., & Skerlos, S. (2022, August), Professional merit in engineering career advancement: Student perspectives and critiques Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN. https://peer.asee.org/41054
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