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The Academic Job Market As An Argument For And Against Interdisciplinary Engineering Graduate Training

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Interdisciplinary Graduate Programs

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1198.1 - 13.1198.7



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Paper Authors


Maura Borrego Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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MAURA BORREGO is an assistant professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. Dr. Borrego holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Stanford University. Her current research interests center around interdisciplinary collaboration in engineering and engineering education, including studies of the collaborative relationships between engineers and education researchers. Investigations of interdisciplinary graduate programs nationwide are funded through her NSF CAREER award.

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Lynita Newswander Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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LYNITA K. NEWSWANDER is a Ph.D. student in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. She also holds master's degrees in English and Political Science from Virginia Tech. Her current research interests are interdisciplinary and reside at the intersection of theory and the empirical aesthetic.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The Academic Job Market as an Argument for and against Interdisciplinary Engineering Graduate Training Abstract

Interdisciplinary approaches are often cited as the key to solving important technical research problems. This has been the motivation for interdisciplinary graduate programs such as those funded through IGERT at the U.S. National Science Foundation. However, interdisciplinary training is also cited as a career risk to students who might not be able to find faculty positions if not grounded in a traditional discipline. To explore the legitimacy of these beliefs related to interdisciplinary faculty openings, we analyzed 743 interdisciplinary academic job postings appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education over a six-month period. We found that overall, less than 7% of all faculty postings are for interdisciplinary positions, but within engineering, 10.7% of the open positions are interdisciplinary (not statistically significant). A higher percentage of postings at senior rank are interdisciplinary than are at junior rank (18% vs. 6%). However, there were ten times as many postings for new assistant professors, and a full 83% of interdisciplinary postings are at the junior rank. Within individual institutions, there is a correlation between the number of engineering and science interdisciplinary positions, but not with humanities and social sciences. We compared these numbers to overall faculty openings and graduation rates from IGERT programs to show that, at least in theory, there are enough positions for graduate of interdisciplinary graduate programs. These results provide important quantitative data to refute claims of career risk as a disincentive for interdisciplinary graduate education.

I. Introduction

Interdisciplinary approaches are necessary for attacking the most critical technological and socio-technological challenges facing the nation and the world today1-3. Students and their training programs are recognized as central to increasing interdisciplinary research capacity. NSF’s strategic plan states, “Future generations of the U.S. science and engineering workforce will need to collaborate across national boundaries and cultural backgrounds, as well as across disciplines”3. IGERT, NSF’s $385 million investment in innovative graduate programs, “is intended to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education, for students, faculty, and institutions, by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries”4.

However, interdisciplinary training is also considered a career risk to students who might not be able to find faculty positions if not grounded in a traditional discipline. These beliefs are such a part of the science and engineering culture that they are rarely documented in archived sources. The IGERT RFP hints at a need for students to remain grounded in traditional disciplines: “Students should gain the breadth of skills, strengths, and understanding to work in an interdisciplinary environment while being well grounded with depth of knowledge in a major field.” Elsewhere in the RFP, this is described as “deep knowledge in chosen disciplines”4. While NSF and others recognize the need to prepare graduate students for careers in industry and

Borrego, M., & Newswander, L. (2008, June), The Academic Job Market As An Argument For And Against Interdisciplinary Engineering Graduate Training Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3663

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