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The Science and Engineering Postdoc Experience Through the Lens of Liminality

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Exploring Graduate Student Experiences

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1575.1 - 26.1575.17



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Paper Authors


Irene B. Mena University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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Irene B. Mena has a B.S. and M.S. in industrial engineering, and a Ph.D. in engineering education. Her
research interests include first-year engineering and graduate student professional development.

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The Science and Engineering Postdoc Experience through the Lens of LiminalityThe purpose of this study is to learn about the experiences of postdoctoral scholars (postdocs) inscience and engineering fields. A postdoc is typically defined as an individual who has recentlyobtained a doctoral degree, and is completing further training before moving on to a morepermanent position, such as that of a faculty member.This study was guided by the theory of liminality. Liminality, a theory from the field ofanthropology, refers to a stage of transition. Individuals in a liminal state are defined as being ina somewhat unclear state that is between two clearly defined states. The postdoctoralexperience, being between the graduate student and faculty states, can be considered a liminalstate.Forty-two postdocs (19 in engineering and 23 in science) employed at a Mid-Atlantic, research-intensive University, participated in individual interviews to describe their experiences aspostdocs at the University. The reasons for conducting this study were two-fold, and provide theframework for the structure of this paper. First, the study sought to better understand the scienceand engineering postdoc experience at the University. As such, the current paper outlines thetypical responsibilities associated with the position, as described by the interview participants,and provides answers to the following research question: (1) What are the benefits andchallenges of science and engineering postdoc positions?Second, the study sought to view the postdoc experience through the lens of liminality, with thegoal of using insights from liminality to provide recommendations to improve the postdocexperience. Thus, the final two research questions are: (2) What liminal experiences characterizethe postdoc position? and (3) What recommendations to improve the postdoc experience emergefrom this study?Interview data were recorded and transcribed verbatim. The data were analyzed using opencoding, and recurring themes were identified and interpreted through the lens of liminality.Findings from the data analysis were used to answer the three research questions.While other studies have looked at the postdoc experience, this study is unique in two mainways. First, it focuses only on science and engineering postdocs. Second, the data is analyzedand interpreted through the lens of liminality, a theory that has not been commonly used toexplain the postdoctoral experience. In addition to being useful to postdocs themselves, findingsfrom this study will be useful to faculty, departments, and universities that employ postdocs.Findings will also be useful to current doctoral students and faculty who advise doctoralstudents, as these students consider next steps in their careers.

Mena, I. B. (2015, June), The Science and Engineering Postdoc Experience Through the Lens of Liminality Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24912

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