Our evidence-based practice paper examines non-academic pathways, which are becoming increasingly common for graduate degree recipients, particularly those in STEM fields. However, career preparation by academic institutions, faculty, and advisors tends to overwhelmingly focus on academic career pathways. One program that seeks to prepare doctoral students for a wider range of career options is Data-Enabled Discovery and Design of Energy Materials (D3EM) at Texas A&M University, which began in 2016 and focuses on the interdisciplinary training of scientists and engineers for many potential future careers. Students in D3EM take part in a cross-disciplinary curriculum of 15 credit hours, in addition to many additional supports, such as mentoring "coffee chats" and writing groups. We are investigating the following evaluation question, in the context of this program:
What experiences and program components may help engineering doctoral students increase their interest and preparation for a career in industry or government, and why are they effective?
We conducted interviews with 12 participants from the 2017 and 2018 cohorts of the D3EM program. Other evaluation data provides context for these interviews. Following content analysis of the interview data, several themes emerged. In general, students reported a lack of stigma in D3EM around pursuing nonacademic careers. Internships and capstone design projects completed for government lab clients in particular increased students' interest in nonacademic career paths, and helped them develop contacts and experiences within government labs to better understand and prepare for full-time work as a government researcher. Informal mentoring opportunities, such as mentoring coffee chats, allowed students to ask questions related to careers by interacting with program faculty. Finally, students created portfolios and individual development plans which would be expected to support their career development, but students reported that these requirements were more onerous than helpful. The D3EM program serves as an example of how impactful programs can be designed to encourage students to explore a variety of potential future career pathways, particularly beyond tenure-track faculty positions. Implications from the findings include the continued implementation of such programs and sustained efforts to change the conversation about PhD careers that reflect the job market and graduate student interests.
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