Engineering Doctoral Students: Identity Formation and Career Support

IEEE Computer Society Team
Published 09/18/2023
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Forming identities of doctoral students in engineeringIn higher education, faculty members’ productivity often depends on doctoral students helping them with their research and teaching loads. However, in fields such as engineering and computer science—where well-paying jobs are plentiful for students with even an undergraduate degree alone—attracting doctoral students to a program can be challenging.

To better understand the needs of engineering doctoral (ED) students, and thus how to better recruit and retain them, researchers explored how these students constructed an identity in their program. They also found that this identity informed ED students’ perceptions of both their career prospects and the resources they needed to pursue them.


Academic Insiders and ED Identity

The study used narrative inquiry and in-depth interviews to explore the stories of nine engineering doctoral students at a western U.S. research institution. Among the themes that emerged was what the researchers defined as a “co-constructed engineering doctoral identity.”

The study found that this ED identity was formed primarily in response to department insiders—including other ED students as well as the faculty and advisors, who largely determine both what is valued and what is rewarded in the program.

So, despite the fact that more than half of the participants were interested in a career outside of academic research, their ED identity centered on research. This research focus was reinforced by faculty, advisors, and by the ED students themselves, who emphasized their dissertations as “a rite of passage” and a way of proving their research skills; they also sought to accumulate research-related metrics of success, including published papers and conference presentations.

Several participants were specifically interested in a career focused on teaching rather than on research. The program’s research emphasis, however, made it difficult for these ED students to find time for teaching-related skills and development opportunities, which were available primarily outside their program.

As a result, all participants were reportedly aware that, while they were not discouraged from pursuing teaching-related opportunities, neither were they supported in doing so; research obligations were the clear priority.


Industry Outsiders and ED Identity

Other participants were interested in a career in industry, and assumptions about industry attitudes toward ED students clearly influenced their ED identity. It also framed how participants viewed their career possibilities in industry, as well as how they viewed engineers with less education.

For example, the study found that participants assumed that employers would be impressed with their doctorate degree. At the same time, ED students were concerned that prospective employers might view them as overqualified and inefficient in an industry environment, given the nature of academic work.

That said, participants also expected employers to pay them more and assign them more creative tasks than people having only an undergraduate or master’s degree, who they viewed as likely to fill positions focused on more routine and rudimentary work.


Going Deeper

This study offers many in-depth findings and discussions on how ED students perceive their program roles, where they need support, and how they view their career paths and possibilities.

Institutions interested in supporting the success of their ED program and its students can learn more from “Co-constructing Engineering Doctoral Identities Through Career Prospects,” which is available as a download below.

Download the Full Study

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