Open Access
Ro, Hyun Kyoung
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 09, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Lisa R Lattuca, Dissertation Advisor
  • Lisa R Lattuca, Committee Chair
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Committee Member
  • Leticia Oseguera, Committee Member
  • Hoi Kin Suen, Committee Member
  • engineering
  • post-graduation plans
  • college effects
The question of students’ post-graduation plans is a critical one for the field of engineering as both industry and higher education institutions seek to understand how to increase the production of highly-skilled individuals for the STEM workforce. Despite the concern, there are but a few empirical studies that examine how students’ academic majors, their educational experiences inside and outside the classrooms, and their perceptions of their knowledge and abilities influence their career and graduate education plans. This study utilized a nationally representative dataset collected for the Prototype to Production: Processes and Conditions for Preparing the Engineer of 2020 (P2P) study (NSF-EEC Award No. 0550608). This study used survey responses from 5,239 engineering students in 212 engineering programs from 31 four-year engineering schools to explore the post-graduation plans of the U.S. engineering students, specifically addressing the research question: do individual students’ pre-college characteristics, academic program experiences, and self-assessments of their engineering abilities influence their post-graduation plans? Six potential responses regarding students’ post-graduation plans from the P2P student survey were explored in this study: 1) Be self-employed in engineering; 2) Be a practicing engineer; 3) Work in engineering management or sales; 4) Work outside engineering; 5) Be in engineering graduate school for academic career; and 6) Be in engineering graduate school for professional career. Because these outcome measures use an ordered scale (from definitely won’t to definitely will), the analysis used a multinomial logistic regression model. Based on the conceptual framework adapted from Terenzini and Reason (2005), the analyses examined students’ post-graduation plans as a function of students’ academic program experiences after controlling for pre-college characteristics that research has shown influence the odds of having the outcomes and experiences to begin with (gender, race/ethnicity, and academic preparedness). The study also explored how students’ self-assessments of their engineering domain knowledge and skills influenced their post-graduation plans after controlling for student pre-college characteristics and academic program experiences. A key finding of the study is that engineering students’ post-graduation plans appear to be complex and tentative decisions. Seniors consider multiple career options, which are not limited to work or study in the field of engineering, as they near graduation. This study also found that there are multiple factors that seem to influence engineering students’ post-graduation plans to stay in the field of engineering. Students’ engineering career and graduate school plans were positively influenced by: gender (with men’s odds higher than women’s); greater curricular emphases on core engineering thinking and professional skills in engineering programs; more active and collaborative learning experiences in the classroom; more active engagement in student organizations for women and underrepresented minority students; and higher self-assessments of fundamental and design skills. On the other hand, students’ plans for graduate study or work outside engineering were positively influenced by: class year standing (with seniors’ odds higher than sophomores’); majoring in General Engineering (compared to the reference group of Mechanical Engineering); greater curricular emphasis on professional values in engineering programs; more active engagement in student organizations for women and URMs; and higher self-assessment of contextual competence. Being active in engineering clubs for women and URMs, appears to influence both engineering and non-engineering career options. Thus, simply offering co-curricular opportunities may not be enough to promote persistence in engineering fields. These findings have a number of implications for practice, policy, theory-building, and future research. Most policies focused on enlarging the engineering pipeline are motivated by a desire to increase the quality and diversity of the engineering workforce, but there has been little empirical study of the section of the pipeline between undergraduate education and the engineering workforce. Advocates of diversifying the workforce will be concerned with the finding that women students are two times less likely than men to plan to enter engineering career and graduate school path. Although most previous research focuses on why women students do not persist or graduate in engineering programs, more research is needed to understand why women who plan to complete an engineering degree then choose a career outside of their field. This study found there was little difference between underrepresented minority and White students in terms of their post-graduation plans, which might be because this study could not examine the race/ethnicity groups separately due to insufficient sample sizes. Agencies such as the National Science Foundation might respond by funding research to develop and analyze large-scale and nationally representative data sets on engineering graduates that would permit researchers to examine post-graduation plans and outcomes for specific racial/ethnic groups. In terms of implications for practice, this study suggests that the engineering programs should provide diverse curricula, instructional, and co-curricular experiences that contribute to students’ learning and satisfaction, and thus encourage them to remain on the engineering workforce pathway. Engineering curricula should integrate technical and contextual issues by stressing problem-solving in real-world contexts to attract engineering students, especially women. Engineering programs also should link curricular and co-curricular opportunities that stress the connections between design, innovation, creativity, interdisciplinary, and professional skills since this content is associated with plans to stay in the engineering workforce or attend an engineering graduate program. Engineering programs or institutions should also encourage and assist engineering faculty members to learn new instructional methods. Opportunities and incentives for professional development activities may promote greater use of instructional practices that actively engage students in their learning. The findings from this study suggest that engineering programs should encourage students to participate in diverse co-curricular programs. Engineering industries should recognize the value of students’ co-curricular experiences in cultivating students’ profession skills and building students’ understanding of the social and global contexts and issues that are part of the work of today’s engineer. In addition to the policy and practical implications, this study suggests future research areas. Terenzini and Reason’s conceptual model, which was modified for this study, should include the disciplinary environment within the organizational context. Student outcomes, however, are situated not only in the context of academic programs and institutions, but also in socio-historical context. Students’ career plans are thus influenced by economic and other prevalent social and cultural conditions. As this study shows seniors consider a broader array of career options than sophomores, possibly because they recognize job market conditions, which will shape their career pathways. Terenzini and Reason’s model should be modified to include this broader socio-historical context. Research on pathways from higher education to the engineering workforce is relatively new. Although students’ reports of their work and graduate study plans are the best predictors of these decisions, future studies should explore the correlation between engineering students’ post-graduation plans in or outside of engineering and actual career and graduate school decisions. Longitudinal data should be collected for this purpose and the long trajectory of engineering graduates’ career pathways should be examined.