Emboldened by a U.S. National Science Foundation CAREER Award, Catherine Berdanier, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State University, seeks to understand the unique experiences and obstacles faced by engineering doctoral students.
"We know almost a third of all engineering doctoral students won't complete their Ph.D.," she says. "But why?"
Current knowledge on the topic is largely derived from anecdotal evidence, which leaves faculty and administrators struggling to fully understand the phenomenon. Over a five-year period, Berdanier's project, "Characterizing Master's Level Departure from the Engineering Doctorate Through Multiple Stakeholders Perspectives," aims to discover and understand the unique challenges doctoral students grapple with.
Many can attest that graduate school is not only a daunting mental challenge, but also an emotional one. "As an academic community, we've been assuming that graduate students are just fine, because they're smart," Berdanier says. "But with so many students not finishing their doctorate, I want to understand why."
Further compounding the issue, students from traditionally underrepresented groups, like racial and ethnic minorities and women, have an even more staggering attrition rate, reaching over 50 percent, according to some estimates.
"Literature has demonstrated there is a culture that can potentially drive people away from academia, and that's harmful to engineering broadly," she says. "But most studies don't consider both the sociological and psychological processes involved in attrition, and very few focus on doctoral students. Those that do tend to lump doctoral students from all STEM disciplines together."
As a researcher, Berdanier focuses on engineering education, but not just what happens in the classroom. "I really get to consider both sides of the equation—the mechanical engineering discipline and the human factors affecting the system of education," she says. "Being uniquely situated in mechanical engineering and trained as an engineer, I'm able to really understand the landscape."
The first phase of the project will encompass qualitative interviews with a nationwide population of students who have either departed from their doctoral programs without earning a degree or those who opted for a master's instead of a doctorate. "We will focus on characterizing the common narratives, figuring out what motivated their departures, which likely vary based on gender, stage of degree, or other factors," Berdanier says. This will be followed by a longitudinal quantitative study of students questioning whether to persist or depart, to understand what trends from the qualitative data can be generalized and to what extent.
Through these stages, Berdanier expects to explore mental health concerns, potential instances of discrimination, and emotional burnout. By understanding the many factors that influence graduate students, she says, "I want the whole system to think more deliberately about how we're supporting our graduate students to succeed."
With the data, Berdanier and her research team will distill the information into usable scenarios that can be distributed to faculty members as an opportunity for faculty to understand more holistically the pressures that today's doctoral students are facing.
The final phase of research will use the narrative scenarios in faculty interviews at institutions across the U.S. to elicit their perceptions of the narratives, seeking to understand potential discrepancies, misunderstandings, or incongruences in the ways in which doctoral engineering students and advisers are considering doctoral engineering education, persistence, attrition, and the definition of academic success at the graduate level.
"We want to develop resources for both stakeholders—faculty and students—to hopefully influence policy and figure out how to help students thrive," she says.
Berdanier hopes the work will inspire policies to better support doctoral students or potentially create new avenues for career preparation if a master's degree better aligns with their goals.
"This work will help start that change from within," she says. "If researchers and faculty can understand and conquer these problems from the inside, our students, faculty, universities, and reputation as an engineering discipline will be all the better for it."
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