A Complex Systems Approach to a Survey of Engineering Graduate Students' Academic Role Identities

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-4155-251X
McAlister, Anne, Systems Engineering - School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Bailey, Reid, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia

Engineering graduate students take on many roles, including engineer, researcher, educator, and student, through which multiple role identities may be formed. An individual’s role identities, especially their identity as an engineer, are related to persistence and belonging in engineering (Choe et al., 2017; Perkins et al., 2017). Institutionalized roles that graduate students take on can represent the culture of the institution and of academia at large; thus, understanding academic role identity is especially important in contributing to the full participation of women and racially minoritized populations in institutions of higher education, and in engineering more broadly (e.g., Brickhouse et al., 2000; Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Hatmaker, 2013; Hazari et al., 2010, 2013; Kalender et al., 2019; Pawley et al., 2016; Tate & Linn, 2005). This study explores to what extent and how the multiple role identities that engineering graduate students take on interact, and the challenges and supports experienced by participants across role identities. This study also builds on previous work (i.e., Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Godwin, 2016; Godwin et al., 2016; Hazari et al., 2010) in presenting a framework of engineering graduate student role identities as a complex system. An open-ended survey exploring role identities was completed by over 80 engineering graduate students at a southeastern research university. Responses were coded and patterns among the codes were used to foreground salient themes.
Students identified with the roles of engineer, researcher, and student at similar levels while they identified less with the educator role. Results concerning the interactions between role identities demonstrate that participants perceived that (1) all these academic role identities were related to each other; but the educator role identity may be less strongly related to the other three; (2) engineer and researcher role identities were most strongly related; (3) engineering thinking was often applied while engaging in the other academic role identities; (4) being an educator involved the dissemination of information; (5) knowledge gained while in the role of a student was foundational for acting in the other roles. Additionally, the results highlight several supports and challenges to academic role identity in graduate school. Supports for academic role identities included performing the practices and taking on the characteristics of a role, interest in a role, positive relationships with more experienced individuals (especially an advisor), and institutional experiences such as classes, internships, and roles as teaching assistants. Challenges to the academic role identities included uncaring relationships with more experienced individuals.
By articulating engineering graduate students’ experiences of personal and professional challenges and supports to strong academic role identities, results inform institutional practices to help increase graduate students’ role identity development and underscore the importance of future research in this area. The importance of this research is to demonstrate how the academic role identities engineering graduate students take on are supported, challenged, and interact in order to learn how institutions can better support engineering graduate students’ academic goals.
Institutions may need to more clearly demonstrate the humanitarian aims of engineering and research within graduate school because connections between engineering, research, and the people who are impacted through that work may increase interest, engineering or researcher role identity, and participation in engineering for individuals who may otherwise not identify with engineering. Institutions may need to give graduate students opportunities to learn through legitimate participation in authentic practices throughout graduate school, rather than emphasizing learning via coursework. Overall, institutions need to make intentional decisions with regard to graduate students’ experiences in these academic roles, because institutional experiences will greatly impact graduate student academic role identity.

MS (Master of Science)
Higher Education, Science Identity, Role Identity
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