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Student Perspectives on Developing More Relevant Ph.D. Programs in STEM Disciplines through Professional Skills Training

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Discipline Specific Topics and Techniques

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1124.1 - 24.1124.21



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Paper Authors

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Mandy Wheadon Purdue University


Nathalie Duval-Couetil Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Nathalie Duval-Couetil is the Director of the Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program, Associate Director of the Burton D. Morgan Center, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Technology Leadership and Innovation at Purdue University. She is responsible for the launch and development of the university’s multidisciplinary undergraduate entrepreneurship program, which has involved over 4500 students from all majors since 2005. She has established entrepreneurship capstone, global entrepreneurship, and women and leadership courses and initiatives at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Prior to her work in academia, Nathalie spent several years in the field of market research and business strategy consulting in Europe and the United States with Booz Allen and Hamilton and Data and Strategies Group. She received a BA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MBA from Babson College, and MS and PhD degrees from Purdue University. She currently serves on the board of the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship in the role of Vice President for Research. She is also a Senior Research Advisor to the Stanford University Epicenter.

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Student Perspectives on Developing More Relevant Ph.D. Programs in STEM Disciplines through Professional Skills TrainingResearch has shown that graduates of doctoral programs face an increasingly difficult job marketas their numbers grow while the available tenure track positions in academia dwindle. For thisreason, PhD graduates are increasingly seeking ways to differentiate themselves from thegrowing pool of highly-educated applicants pursuing employment in business, industry, and theacademy. However, there is evidence that many find they lack a variety of professional skills thatare necessary to function well in these roles. Although PhD programs equip students withspecific and specialized skills, typically in very narrow areas of research, they often not designedto instill vital transferable skills—such as the ability to lead and manage others, participate ininterdisciplinary work, think entrepreneurially, and communicate effectively—that cultivate thebroad range of professional abilities contemporary employers are demanding. In order tounderstand student perceptions of these issues, this study relates the findings of surveys andfocus groups involving STEM-field PhD students at a large Midwestern university. These datashow that while science, technology, and engineering PhDs recognize the value of obtainingtransferable professional skills and are interested in a pursuing variety of career paths, they oftendo not receive training they perceive is necessary to help them succeed in their future careers.This is attributed to a combination of barriers that graduate students face, to varying degrees,over the course of their doctoral programs. Time is a major factor. Students are often underpressure to focus on their areas of discipline and perform well, leaving little time for additionaltraining. Motivation can also be an issue. Although students generally understand that acquiringmore skills will be helpful for seeking employment and advancing within a career, they are oftenmore motivated to focus on the tasks that help them finish their degrees or secure academicfunding. A third barrier concerns disciplinary, departmental, or advisory cultures. Manyacademic programs are insulated from others, and as students acculturate into their disciplines,they are less aware of opportunities or needs for additional skills outside of their departmentalculture. This study seeks to more clearly articulate the expectations PhD students have forreceiving relevant career preparation during graduate school, the kinds of transferableprofessional skills they hope to obtain before graduating, and the barriers they face in gainingthose skills. It will also proffer some potential solutions for helping students overcome thesebarriers as they seek to close the transferable skills gap.

Wheadon, M., & Duval-Couetil, N. (2014, June), Student Perspectives on Developing More Relevant Ph.D. Programs in STEM Disciplines through Professional Skills Training Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23057

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