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The Challenge of Returning: Transitioning from an Engineering Career to Graduate School

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Methods, Techniques, and New Programs in Graduate Education

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1431.1 - 22.1431.26



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Paper Authors


Diane L. Peters University of Michigan

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Diane L. Peters is a postdoctoral research fellow in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. She received her doctorate from the University of Michigan in 2010. Prior to beginning her doctoral work, she was employed as a design engineer in industry, working with equipment for the assembly automation and printing industries.

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Shanna R. Daly University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Shanna Daly is an Assistant Research Scientist in the College of Engineering and the Design Science Program. Her research focuses on teaching and learning design and innovation strategies in interdisciplinary contexts.

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The Challenge of Returning: Transitioning from an Engineering Career to Graduate SchoolWhile many graduate students have progressed directly from their undergraduate education tograduate school, with little or no time passing in between the two, a significant number ofgraduate students have not followed this pathway. These students, referred to in various placesas “older,” “mature,” “adult,” “non-traditional” or “returning” students, have had a variety ofcareer and life experiences between their undergraduate and graduate studies. Because of theseexperiences, returning students are different in many ways from those students who haveproceeded directly from undergraduate education to graduate school, and these differences canenrich the graduate experience both for the returning students and for their fellow students.However, these returning students also face certain challenges that traditional students do not.Some of these challenges involve the lack of information and mentoring available to traditionalstudents as they prepare to move from their undergraduate program to a graduate program,personal and family responsibilities, fitting in to the graduate school community, and changes inlearning style over time (Schilling, 2008; Gardner, 2008; Knowles, 1978). Such challengeshamper the returning student’s ability to successfully enter and complete graduate degreeprograms (Schilling, 2008; Gardner, 2008; MacFadgen, 2008).While the published literature on returning students has discussed some of their special skills andparticular challenges, there are many unanswered questions, particularly in regard to returningstudents in engineering. In this work, using a case study lens, several returning students wereinterviewed, and the resultant data were analyzed in order to address several unansweredquestions. What type of guidance do returning students have access to in their decision to return, and how effective is it? What academic issues do engineering students face when returning to school after an absence? What success strategies do returning students use to persist and succeed in graduate school?The data from this study are useful in beginning to answer these questions, and in informingfuture studies. Furthermore, with such data, universities will be able to more effectively advisereturning students. This will allow the university to gain from their experiences, as well asbenefiting students who are better equipped to persist and earn their graduate degrees.

Peters, D. L., & Daly, S. R. (2011, June), The Challenge of Returning: Transitioning from an Engineering Career to Graduate School Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18729

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