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The Doctorate Journey: Mapping Perceptions of the Ph.D. Process

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Tricks of the Trade - Reflections and Advice on the Educational Process

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Paper Authors


Stephanie Cutler Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Stephanie Cutler has a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Virginia Tech. Her dissertation explored faculty adoption of research-based instructional strategies in the statics classroom. Currently, Dr. Cutler works as an assessment and instructional support specialist with the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education at Penn State. She aids in the educational assessment of faculty-led projects while also supporting instructors to improve their teaching in the classroom. Previously, Dr. Cutler worked as the research specialist with the Rothwell Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence Worldwide Campus (CTLE - W) for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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James J. Pembridge Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Univ., Daytona Beach

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James J. Pembridge is an Assistant Professor in the Freshman Engineering Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He earned a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering, M.A. Education in Curriculum and Instruction, and Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Virginia Tech. His research has focused on mentoring as pedagogy for project-based courses and understanding the adult learning characteristics of undergraduate students.

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Matthew A. Verleger Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Univ., Daytona Beach

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Matthew Verleger is an Assistant Professor of Engineering Fundamentals at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His research interests are focused on using action research methodologies to develop immediate, measurable improvements in classroom instruction and the use of Model-Eliciting Activities (MEAs) in teaching students about engineering problem solving. Dr. Verleger is an active member of ASEE. He also serves as the developer and site manager for the Model-Eliciting Activities Learning System (, a site designed for implementing, managing, and researching MEAs in large classes.

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During a special session at the Frontiers in Education conference in 2013, presenters used an analogy to the fantasy book/movie series The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien1 framed by identity-trajectory theory to explore the pathway to receiving a PhD2. At the start of the session, participants were asked to create a map of the PhD process keeping the following questions in mind: Who are the players and how do they relate to each other?; What are the milestones?; and What are the events that impact the outcomes?

Using the participant-created maps as well as original analogy elements, this paper explores the elements of identity-trajectory highlighted by the different participant group maps. Academic identity-trajectory includes three primary elements: intellectual, institutional, and network3,4. For the intellectual element, we explore the role of the overall field in the PhD process and how they were represented within the participant created maps. The institutional element helps explore the graduate school structure and resources that influence graduate students’ development. Largely, the institutional elements are highlighted through the required milestones that must be overcome to complete the PhD process. Finally, the network element explores the relationships that influence graduate students and the role these different players influence a graduate student’s success in receiving their PhD. Additionally, we highlight the challenges or events that can negatively impact a student’s progress toward degree as identified by the special session participants.

The goal of this paper is to demonstrate multiple perceptions of the PhD process to aid current and future graduate students in understanding common pathways and to help initiate conversations among graduate students and other players about what to expect from the PhD process. Good communication between an advisor/advisee, and among various graduate students, can help to negate some of the challenges students face in graduate school and encourage a successful experience for the students.

Cutler, S., & Pembridge, J. J., & Verleger, M. A. (2016, June), The Doctorate Journey: Mapping Perceptions of the Ph.D. Process Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26127

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