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Expectations for what "counts" as an engineering career and how career decisions are made
This dissertation consisted of a mixed-methods investigation into expectations about what “counts” as an engineering career and how individuals make decisions about their futures. Presented as a set of three independent but closely related studies, I examined the ways that engineering students, alumni, and educators think and talk about careers and career decision-making. This work focused not only on the content of participants’ experiences, but also the extent to which their claims may reflect or inform commonly held beliefs about what is normal, expected, or assumed. Such a focus adds an additional layer to ongoing conversations about how we can support students in their future endeavors.
The participants were students, alumni, or educators from four engineering programs (i.e., biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering) at a single institution in the United States. The first study investigated the experiences of engineering undergraduate students with varying career plans at the cusp of the college-to-career transition. The fourteen students balanced an expectation of passion and fulfillment against an uncertainty of how to choose from their many and wide-ranging career options. I analyzed participants’ claims through discourse analysis and leveraged the concept of transformative decisions to highlight the difficulty of applying a rational decision-making framework to engineering students’ career decisions.
To complement the student perspective, I also investigated the perspectives of engineering alumni and educators. In the second study, I collected survey data from engineering undergraduate degree holders (n = 1,979) who earned their degree between 1970 and 2019. Using write-in data, I mapped alumni’s career pathways for their first four positions after graduation (i.e., their early career pathways). While some findings were unsurprising (e.g., the recent Millennial generation has shorter position durations compared to previous generations), the findings also highlight that the pathways of engineering degree holders have been generally consistent across time. Alumni have always moved in and out of roles that have “engineer” in the job title. In the survey, the alumni also named up to three educators at the institution that had been influential on their career pathways; those educators were targeted in the third study to better understand how to support students. I interviewed eleven influential educators about the strategies they used to help students make career decisions, which ranged from presenting themselves as approach to helping students figure out their interests. Beyond the pragmatic recommendations, the final study also highlights how the advice educators give do not always reflect their own experiences, underscoring why it is important to be aware of the expectations embedded in the messages we tell students.
- Doctor of Philosophy
- Engineering Education
- West Lafayette