Although there is substantial and identifiable need for Ph.D. engineering students to receive instruction in academic communication genres, often the basic realities of doctoral programs make it difficult for students to make use of resources that are available to help them improve their writing and oral competencies. The importance of effective communication for individual researchers, for the field and for promoting the broader impact to society are all recognized benefits, yet opportunities for engineering students, particularly at the doctoral level to develop their communication skills are relatively lacking.
Results of our exploratory survey of engineering faculty and Ph.D. students identify several communication-related needs that should be addressed in the doctoral programs of Ph.D. engineering students to enable them to function as independent researchers. The ability to communicate effectively supports engineering Ph.D.’s ability to teach, mentor, write more impactful papers and proposals, and to secure an academic position. These benefits are clear, how they can best be supported through course offerings, labs, workshops, one-on-one coaching and other modes, needs further study.
Communication needs of Ph.D. students range from assistance with basic grammatical structures, word choice and other surface-level issues to the clear and precise articulation of complex and abstract research using specialized language and the formalized structures of academic expression. This combination of handling sophisticated scientific material, mingled with a less developed experiential base with standard academic rhetorical forms is the situation that many engineering graduate students face. The high percentage of non-native writers and speakers pursuing Ph.D.’s in engineering adds another layer of need to address, as these students may have less exposure to academic English instruction, and thus less opportunity to experiment and develop specific academic writing and speaking skills. Academic communication courses, workshops, tutorials and other resources are vital in providing a means to overcome uncertainties, realize a path to improvement, and to develop a scholarly voice.
This paper explores the distinct communication needs of the engineering Ph.D. student which tend to be under-serviced relative to offering for undergraduates, industry-oriented professionals and other technical communication genres. Emphasis is placed on international students who increasingly make up a significant proportion if not the majority of Ph.D. engineering students in US universities.
Through our exploratory survey and interviews with faculty and students we highlight the characteristics of the engineering Ph.D. student population related to their academic communications, results and benefits from existing academic communication courses, and finally, impediments and possible solutions to support the growth of resources and utilization.
This study, consisting of survey data, interviews and empirical evidence indicates that motivating the development of academic writing and speaking among engineering Ph.D. students requires relevancy to the research field of students. Among other findings, we see that given the time-strapped situation of most Ph.D. engineering students, instruction that relates closely to in-progress work is meaningful and thus, an anchor to attention and improvement. To improve fluency and flow, in writing and speaking, a topical focus on ethical issues has served to link specialized technical information to broader social communication that connects student’s to greater opportunity.
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