Practitioner Experience Meets Graduate Academic Research: How Intersections Guide the Work of Returning Engineering PhD Students
Enabling diversity in engineering graduate education
Graduate student needs and experiences
Potpourri; other related Graduate Studies topics
Returners—those with engineering degrees who work outside of academia for at least five years and come back to the academic setting to earn their PhDs—bring a unique blend of perspectives to their engineering work, making them well suited to discover new knowledge, design innovative solutions, and solve problems that will keep the U.S. globally competitive and contribute to finding solutions to the challenges of our present and future world. However, little empirical work ahs been done to understand just their prior work and PhD training come together to shape their research topics and future plans. Thus, in our work, we investigated the experiences and perspectives of returners to understand better how prior engagement with practitioner practice influences graduate engineering academic research. The following research questions guided our work:
1. In what ways do returners transition to academia?
2. To what extent does previous work experience impact the ways returning students experience graduate school?
3. How does the intersection of prior engineering experience and academia shape the topics of research work and their connectedness to the “real-world?”
Twenty-five Ph.D. students recruited from three institutions engaged in an hour-long interview about the transition from being industry or government employees to members of an academic community as Ph.D. students. The purposely selected sample ensured a variety of work experiences (including large and small scale, government and industry) and research interests and individuals who were diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and year in their graduate program.
In our analysis, we examined to what extent the frameworks of creative cognition and community of practice (COP) facilitated understanding of pathways for the experiences of five returners. Creative cognition pays particular attention to the role of prior experiences in shaping creative outcomes, acknowledging that existing ideas constrain and direct the form of newly developed ideas, and providing a lens on how prior experiences in government or industry interact with present contexts to influence innovation. A COP is a consortium of individuals working toward a common goal, with a particular set of practices valued by its kinship.
Returners enrolled in graduate school to further investigate an industry problem, to take advantage of academic freedom, to gain the credentials required to teach at the post-secondary level, to carry out engineering education research, and as a result of layoffs due to economic downturns. Industry and government experience exposed participants to collaborative and communicative practices, thus strengthening their professional social skills. Individuals with experience at large companies felt their contribution was minimal; however, those with small company experience considered their work important. In most cases, participants’ dissertation topics related to prior experience, but did not necessarily associate with the most recent non-academic experience. The final paper elaborates upon the statement above.
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