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Projections as Preparation for Persistence: Exploring Expectations for Engineering Graduate School

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Graduate Education Expectations, Preparation, and Pathways

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Ellen Zerbe Pennsylvania State University

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Ellen Zerbe is a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She earned her B.S.M.E. at Grove City College. She is currently researching under Dr. Catherine Berdanier in the Engineering Cognition Research Laboratory.

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Gabriella M. Sallai Pennsylvania State University

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Gaby Sallai is currently a Master's 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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The purpose of this research paper is to explore the expectations that engineering students have when entering graduate school. Graduate engineering education is understudied, but recent reports have highlighted the importance of focusing on topics related to graduate student retention and thriving. Our team’s recent work explored how graduate students have come to engineering and, more importantly, captured why they may be considering departing from their graduate studies, finding that students’ expectations and goals for graduate school are more important than previously established: Students coming in with uncertain goals and expectations often consider departing from their PhD programs. This paper presents interviews with N=35 current engineering graduate students, exploring their perceptions for what they thought graduate school would be like. The semi-structured interview protocol probed students to think back on their transitions into their graduate programs, expectations for the graduate school experience, and whether those expectations were proven false or were validated. Findings show that those students whose expectations were incorrect and resulted in negative experiences were more likely to consider leaving their programs later in their career as a graduate student. This work adds to the relatively scarce body of literature on graduate level engineering education and will influence theory development to add to the national conversations on graduate-level completion and departure from the engineering PhD.

Zerbe, E., & Sallai, G. M., & Berdanier, C. G. (2020, June), Projections as Preparation for Persistence: Exploring Expectations for Engineering Graduate School Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35100

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