Returning students, who we define as those PhD students with 5 or more years out of school between their undergraduate and doctoral degrees, represent a largely overlooked pathway through advanced engineering training. Returners contribute to the diversity of perspectives and experiences necessary to address the complex global problems of our contemporary society. Given prior applied work experience in an engineering context, returners are likely to be aware of important engineering problems. Returners’ combination of applied engineering work experience and advanced academic training may position them well to draw on both perspectives in developing innovative engineering solutions. Creative cognition theory suggests that innovation may thrive at intersections, including the combination of ideas from multiple contexts. However, returners represent a relatively small proportion of engineering PhD students and limited research about their experiences suggests they may face particular challenges in their doctoral studies compared to their direct-pathway peers (students who pursue a PhD shortly after their undergraduate education). In an effort to learn more about returners’ perspectives, experiences, research, and approaches to engineering problem solving, our team designed and implemented what is, to our knowledge, the first large-scale mixed-methods study comparing returning and direct-pathway engineering PhD students.
In the first phase of our study, guided by best practices of survey development, we developed the Graduate Student Experiences and Motivations Survey (GSEMS). The GSEMS was administered to nearly 500 returning and direct-pathway students nationally. Survey questions were informed by data from our team’s pilot study of returning students and was grounded in Eccles’ Expectancy Value Framework. The survey examines students’ motivation for pursuing a PhD, their experiences during their degree, their perceived costs and values of earning a PhD, their confidence in their ability to succeed, and their Post-PhD plans.
The second phase of our study included semi-structured interviews with a total of 53 returning and direct-pathway students who participated in the first survey phase. We purposefully recruited participants who were diverse in terms of their returner status, institution, engineering field, gender, and race/ethnicity. Interviews focused on students’ prior experiences, their decision to pursue a PhD, and their research focus and strategies for directing their work, as well as a hypothetical scenario meant to elicit students’ approaches to solving engineering problems and their past experience with various elements of the problem-solving process.
A multi-phase mixed-methods study best suited our research questions by enabling us to gain both depth and breadth of understanding about the experiences of engineering PhD returners, about whom little is known, and compare their experiences to those of direct-pathway students. The proposed paper looks at findings across the quantitative and qualitative data to explore differences in the experiences and perspectives of returners and direct-pathway research related to their PhD programs, engineering work, and approaches to engineering research. Collectively our findings indicated that engineering returners may perceive greater costs associated with pursuing a PhD compared to their direct-pathway peers. However, while returners may face obstacles in pursuing a PhD, our findings also suggested that returners also bring valuable experience and a distinct perspective to their engineering work.
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