Academia or industry — How do engineering PhDs choose their next step?

A new Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College study seeks to determine the role of the workplace environment in STEM career choices.

 Project title 
Is ‘Taste for Science Enough’? Exploring factors that influence career aspirations of engineering students

 Grant effective dates 
May 1, 2018September 30, 2019

 Principal investigator(s) 
Jeongeun Kim

 Originating sponsor 
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College

The challenge

PhD students and graduates produce many of the patent applications and patents that make the U.S. a global leader in technological innovation. This is particularly true of engineering PhDs, who are responsible for the highest number of patents in that field. In recent years, the number of engineering PhDs entering industry careers has increased, while those pursuing academic careers decreased. This trend has been attributed to shifts in workplace environments or individual personality traits — individual traits that can be distinguished according to the individual’s “taste” for science or business; the appeal of peer recognition versus financial compensation. Recognizing the shifting research interests and skills of the emerging engineering workforce, non-academic workplaces are adapting their environments to support basic research, while academic scientists are engaging with industry for applied research opportunities. If academia and industry are indeed becoming more alike, what role does the workplace environment play in shaping career choices?

The approach

Assistant Professor Jeongeun Kim

Postdoctoral scholar Yeukai Mlambo

Assistant Professor Jeongeun Kim proposed a study to explore factors that influence career aspirations of engineering students. Working with postdoctoral scholar Yeukai Mlambo, Kim will build a unique dataset to examine how educational and training experiences and noncognitive traits are related to the career development of students with different demographic backgrounds — underrepresented minorities, female and international students. They will also explore how education and training shape the value individuals ascribe to particular career options. Phase 1 of the project will design and test the survey instrument: a questionnaire to capture factors that might contribute to the career aspirations of PhD students. The resulting questionnaire will be distributed nationally. Phase 2 will analyze the data to determine how different factors are related to career aspirations and predict the probability of choosing different sectors as well as major job responsibilities, based on educational environment as well as personality traits.

Findings & impact

Kim expects the study will have implications for government science policy, guide institutional policy in creating career development programs and offer long-term hiring strategy guidance for industry. The theoretical and empirical approach of the study could also be used to examine other applied fields such as medicine or teacher education. Kim plans to present their findings at conferences such as the American Society for Engineering Education and the Association for the Study of Higher Education; and through peer-reviewed journals such as Science Policy and the Journal of Higher Education. In addition, the researchers will use preliminary data to draft proposals for the National Science Foundation Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, and Broadening Participation in Engineering programs.