June 24, 2017
June 24, 2017
June 28, 2017
Educational Research and Methods
This research paper explores how engineering doctoral students (EDSs) interpret experiences and craft engineering identities while pursuing a Ph.D.
The number of students completing engineering doctoral studies is an area of ongoing concern, as reports indicate a shortage of skilled STEM workers and systemic under-representation of marginalized groups. Developing an engineering identity has been highlighted as key to retention and achievement in engineering. In graduate programs, the establishment of an engineering identity may aid in goal formation and the development of intrinsic motivation. This qualitative project is driven by the research question: How do EDSs develop and interpret their engineering identities in the context of their graduate experiences? We use interpretive phenomenological analysis to analyze eight EDSs’ interviews about their identities throughout their graduate education. Themes at all levels — descriptive, linguistic, and conceptual — were explored for patterns within and between participants.
Two themes emerged from analysis. First is the importance of a permanent and integrated engineering identity. ‘Permanent’ refers to an identity which incorporates past and current experiences into a stable, long-term sense of self. This theme can be seen in Sean’s interview when discussing his identity as the son of a physics teacher: “When I was a kid my father took me to the physics lab... I love[d] that my dad [was] teaching a student, and everybody [was] listening to him.” Sean describes being inspired to teach because of his father, but as an international student pursuing a Ph.D. in the U.S., he also spent time grappling with words and their meanings. He calls upon these experiences when identifying as a scientist rather than an engineer: “You say master of science, not master of engineering.… You've got to be a master in science, not in engineering. Then Ph.D. ... It means the philosophy, it means you are going to figure out the pure science.” Sean relies both on his experience as a son and an English-language learner to construct and defend his engineering identity.
The second theme, that of transitional identity, describes students whose identities are conflicting and unstable, characterized by their inability to view themselves as 'true' engineers. Xena, who followed her advisor to a new institution after her Master’s, must now navigate a new environment (i.e., transition) while maintaining progress. “I feel behind in terms of planning out my academic [career]... I haven't gotten a publication out this year. I'm not going to take my qualifying [exam] this year.” The new environment also makes it difficult to build relationships, as her research takes her in new directions: “I don't have classes with engineering students… [I’m] just in my little corner working… ” These transitions isolate Xena from field resources, fragment her identity, and diminish her motivation. Sean’s experience is positive, while Xena’s is negative; these results suggest that different facets of one’s identity can be both a buffer or a burden, and that supporting the development of an integrated engineering identity will improve EDS’s performance.
Perkins, H., & Tsugawa-Nieves, M. A., & Chestnut, J. N., & Miller, B., & Kirn, A., & Cass, C. (2017, June), The Role of Engineering Identity in Engineering Doctoral Students' Experiences Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. https://peer.asee.org/29006
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