Background: Graduate engineering student attrition is prevalent, but most literature that studies graduate attrition is accomplished in disciplines outside of STEM or engineering, yielding an incomplete understanding of either attrition or persistence. Purpose/Hypothesis: The purpose of this article is to investigate the relationships between motivators of attrition for engineering graduate students. Design/Method: Data were collected using an online Web-scraping “bot” that mines data from the online forum Reddit. The anonymous textual forum threads collected were qualitatively analyzed through open-coding methods. Results: The emergent themes reveal the interconnectedness between the roles of the advisor, student perception of cost, their support network, goals, their perceptions of how others perceive them, and quality of life and work. Our model is flexible in that it illuminates underlying combinations of factors that can influence student attrition. Conclusion: This study provides a framework by which various stakeholders can approach the support and education of graduate students, including mentoring students both toward or away from graduate school per the student's goals.
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Analysis of social media forums to elicit narratives of graduate engineering student attrition. / Berdanier, Catherine G.P.; Whitehair, Carey; Kirn, Adam; Satterfield, Derrick.In: Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 109, No. 1, 01.01.2020, p. 125-147.
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › peer-review
TY - JOUR
T1 - Analysis of social media forums to elicit narratives of graduate engineering student attrition
AU - Berdanier, Catherine G.P.
AU - Whitehair, Carey
AU - Kirn, Adam
AU - Satterfield, Derrick
N1 - Funding Information: Even in the short excerpts from the data that are used to characterize each of the major themes, elements of integration between the themes are evident. In fact, none of the forum threads referred only to one facet of attrition; always two or more were in combination with one another. In this section, we present four forum posts exactly as they appear from participants. Each forum post will be discussed as a whole to illuminate how the codes interact with one another in light of individual circumstances. These four posts were selected because they each cover at least three of the six primary themes and represent the deeply personal decision‐making processes within attrition. These data are raw, personal, and show that attrition is a process through which a student journeys, rather than a singular event that occurs when a student informs her or his university of a decision to depart. The author names are created by the Reddit users themselves, and the author names and titles often give an immediate impression (such as that of sadstudent15 ). We arranged these narratives in an explicit order, discussing the narratives in relationship with one another throughout the section rather than all at once. This decision was advantageous for two reasons. First, because we refer to the narratives and students by their Reddit usernames, it can be difficult to hold all the narratives and experiences in mind at once before an overall discussion. Second, we felt that readers can build a more nuanced understanding of how the themes manifest and couple in complex ways and can vary in connotation and complexity between various narratives. We start by introducing imagradschoolquitter , whose thoughtful and reflective narrative held five themes, to introduce many of the complex themes. Then, we present the narrative of sadstudent15 because it presents most of the same themes, but with a much different tone. Both these students' advisors seemed to support them in graduate school; therefore, we chose to present academic_nut ' s narrative third, representing a gut‐wrenchingly complex advisor relationship in spite of an otherwise “successful” career. Last, we present the narrative of Harperssocks at it holds the same themes as imagradschoolquitter 's but is genuinely alarming in terms of this student's physical and mental health. This arrangement best presents our data while capturing the frustration, trepidation, and grim realities of graduate students as a launching point for the discussion. As a note, some users rely on internet shorthand, for example, other forum threads on Reddit are referred to with the notation “/r/,” and the acronym “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn't read,” giving a brief summary of the forum post for readers those who do not read the full post. During analysis and in presenting the results of this study, we were careful to not assign gender to any participant unless explicitly self‐identified in the post. Therefore, we use the gender‐neutral “their/they/them” unless a gender was otherwise indicated by the user. Narrative 1: Imagradschoolquitter Primary Themes Connected: Advisor Role and Relationship, Quality of Life and Work, Cost, Perception by Others, Goals AUTHOR: imagradschoolquitter. TITLE: Quitting—lament of a grad school burnout. SELFTEXT: Throwaway. I've been active off and on on /r/gradschool, /r/engineeringstudents, and /r/engineering throughout my Reddit tenure under several usernames. I've given and received some good advice on Reddit. I am not sure exactly why I'm posting here. It'd be wrong to say I do not need words of encouragement… but maybe I can offer some feedback to grad students who are struggling, too. Feel free to ask me questions, if that strikes your fancy. My story: I was an engineering PhD student at a big public research university in the U.S. Came here for my MS degree about 6 years ago, fell in love with research, decided to stay for PhD. My adviser is well known in his field and was enthusiastic to have me on board for the PhD, but had no funding to offer when I started out––so I chugged away at a temporary assistantship within my department until a project came through that would offer me a few years of funding. My dissertation project was industry‐funded, entailed a lot of very laborious lab testing and was in a somewhat isolated environment (off campus lab). Endured a lot of difficulties getting my laboratory equipment to work, ultimately became more and more stressed out (from lab testing) and disillusioned about academia (stresses of finding funding, politics, isolated work environment). Became depressed, started seeing counselors, and after several very difficult months I realized that quitting would probably be a better choice for me than keeping at it. I never felt that academia was my sole career aspiration. I stayed on for the doctorate because it seemed intriguing, provided an intellectually stimulating/satisfying job for a few years, etc. In fact, I did not even think I had an interest in academia when I started out. Later on I gave it some serious consideration, started thinking about applying for faculty positions and so forth. But ultimately I started wondering whether it was a good idea after all, in no small part because of the stress I carried with me throughout the laboratory work. My adviser has been supportive, but I was terrified of making this decision and breaking the news to him. I guess I figured I was letting him down & he'd be disappointed in me. I'll never know if he actually was bummed out—he's been supportive and complimentary the couple of times we have spoken since I made the decision. But I'll always wonder if he really thinks I'm just weak, or that I let him down and committed a crime of morality by abandoning my dissertation project. It was a practical project with lots of potential benefit to society. It's hard to let go of that. I just could not take it anymore. I needed to end the constant stress and worrying, and find something to do that would offer a “real” paycheck. I want to work 9 to 5 and have my weekends off and start a relationship sometime and just live my life. I made this decision about a month ago and have been coming to terms with it since then. I'm almost out of money, but my adviser is funding me for a few more weeks to finalize the parts of my research that I've completed thus far, and to give me some time to figure things out in my life. I do not want to move back home yet (I'm quite far from my hometown), and I'll probably strike out to a new city for my next job. Adviser has told me he was very happy with the work I did and he's happy to write letters of recommendation for my next job. I have a lot of close friends in this college town, so of course it's going to be very difficult to leave too. Currently my plan is to live on my credit card for another month or two, apply for jobs and tie things up with my business around here. All things considered, I'm a really lucky person. But the last few months have been really difficult emotionally. I know I was qualified, and capable of finishing my degree. It sucks giving this up. I have a deep fondness for people in science, engineering and academic research, and I know now I'll never be part of “the club.” I'll never be able to say I “did my PhD,” or talk with other concerned citizens about the problems facing the world with any kind of formal qualification. I know my intelligence and civic worthiness do not rest on a piece of paper, but it sucks not to finish what I started. I'm just going to remain that person who spent the better part of a decade in graduate school while everyone else was making money and procreating. I feel like I'm behind. Anyways, that's it. Just wanted to share. Best of luck to all you struggling students in /r/gradschool—you are doing great work. I have to leave you now but I love ya just the same. Imagradschoolquitter offers a summary of 6 years in graduate school as a means of mentorship or advice for others who are struggling in graduate school, in part because of the mentorship and support network that helped to sustain them through past forum threads and conversations. The theme of Quality of Life and Work is immediately noted, that the research work was high‐stress and compounded by the effect of isolation. However, the urgency of the project—potentially related to the quality that made the research high‐stress—was something important “with lots of potential benefit to society.” As evidence of complex feelings of guilt or shame, this author muses that perhaps leaving the dissertation project was a “crime of morality.” In addition, this writer spends nearly half the post debriefing on their Advisor Role and Relationship, which seems to have been supportive. However, imagradschoolquitter consistently worries that they let their advisor down and that, even though the advisor has been complimentary and has written strong letters of reference, might “really just think I'm weak,” an attribute that was categorized as Perception by Others. The external perception of weakness is noteworthy with respect to the explicit confidence statement in the ability to complete a PhD, noting that they felt “qualified, and capable of completing the degree” from a technical standpoint. Though their “intelligence and civic worthiness don't rest on a piece of paper,” nor are they committed only to an academic career (Goals), here the tone of the post changed from confidence to regret in “not being part of the club” or not being able to say they “did [their] PhD.” These phrases exemplify the tension in how the internal and external perceptions of self may collide during the decision to stay in or leave academia. To this end, imagradschoolquitter 's career‐based regret is that perception that they will “never be able to … talk with other concerned citizens about the problems facing the world with any kind of formal qualification,” indicating they do not assign worth to the time spent in graduate school. After rhetorically parting with their past academic identity, imagradschoolquitter immediately jumps to personal identity decisions such as starting a family or establishing a career. They claim a new identity as “that person who spent the better part of a decade in graduate school while everyone else was making money and procreating” and note feeling “behind” in life, manifestations of the Cost theme. Hints of isolation emerge again, feeling disconnected with experiences in life that are designated to be more “normal.” These quotes demonstrate tension between the internal and external perceptions of self, but also seem contradictory to the earlier strong statements of self‐confidence. Rather than treating dueling statements as invalid, they can be true simultaneously, showing that the complexities of attrition, identity, self‐esteem, advisor, and perceptions of others are intricately connected with work environment in the decision to depart. Narrative 2: sadstudent15 Primary Themes Connected: Advisor Role and Relationship, Support Network, Cost, Perception by Others AUTHOR: sadstudent15. TITLE: Just finished year 4 of PhD work, want to quit! SELFTEXT: Tonight I called my boyfriend crying once again, because I want to quit grad school. I wrote my master's thesis and defended that after 2.5 years of grad school, and ever since then I've had about one night every two or three weeks where I swear up and down that I'm going to quit. But I never do. I'm still here. I've made a little progress on my dissertation work, but for every little step forward there have been way too many tears. Over the last year and a half I've been convinced not to quit by my advisor, my mother, my father, my peers, and my grandma. Here are a few of the reasons they have given me, and my response. “You'll regret it if you don't finish.” “I'm already proud of myself for the master's degree.” “You're so lucky that you're being paid for a higher degree at a great university.” “But I'm miserable almost every single day.” “You will be in a very elite group.” “Not a lot of people have master's degrees in engineering.” “You'll be able to earn lots of money.” “I could earn a lot with the degree I have, plus money doesn't mean shit if you hate going to work every day.” “You're so close, you can't quit now.” “The hardest and worst part is yet to come.” But really the only reason I have not quit is because I do not want to disappoint anyone. So here I am asking strangers for advice. Is hating grad school normal? Did you want to quit so many times but then got your PhD and were so happy you did not? Why do I care so much about what other people think? Edit: I'm meeting with my advisor tomorrow, and I'm going to bring the idea up of not finishing. I'm sure he'll try to convince me to stay. And honestly out of everyone I ask for advice he's the only one that could convince me to stay. Sadstudent15 , this author's self‐defined name, articulates dialogues that this student has had with multiple people in their network, indicating that a support network has been a central theme in their life. This student has confided in multiple people about their decision to depart the PhD (Support Network) including their advisor (Advisor Role and Relationship), who seemed to have worked toward convincing this student to stay in graduate school, despite continual breakdowns over the past 9 months of doctoral work. The emphasis here is how much value ; O'Meara, Knudsen, & Jones, ), this post hints at a potentially toxic effect from a support network that continues to push toward persistence in spite of continuous misery. Paralyzed in the decision, this student reaches out to “strangers” on Reddit, wanting to know if others were happy in their decision to persist despite “hating grad school.” sadstudent15 places on the words of family and friends, and the self‐awareness of how much other people's opinions factor into the decision. Although support networks typically have a positive connotation associated with them, with known connections between support networks and persistence (Gardner, Like imagradschoolquitter 's narrative, sadstudent15 gives competing narratives regarding their commitment to leaving, due to the inherent need to please others. Sadstudent15 knows how they feel about each of the rationales for staying in graduate school and has legitimate responses to the reasons their network gives them for staying. Perhaps the most provoking statement of all is the commitment that “money doesn't mean shit if you hate going to work each day” (Cost), a statement that could easily be applied to their current situation in “hating” their doctoral experience. The theme of Advisor Role and Relationship is intricately connected to both the themes of Support Network and Perception of Others. Sadstudent15 's advisor has already convinced them not to leave. The post echoes of self‐fulfilling prophecy, that in bringing up the possibility of leaving with this advisor, that he will convince sadstudent15 yet again to stay, and that sadstudent15 values his opinion more than anyone else's (though they all recommended staying as well). Strikingly absent from this post is an indication of sadstudent15 's initial interest in graduate school or research. While imagradschoolquitter discussed the thrill of intellectual stimulation and an inherent interest in the societal good of their project, this post gives no indication of goals, motivation, or what types of career trajectory this student would like to pursue, either after a PhD or after leaving academia. While the post is reflective in terms of wondering if others were happy they had persisted and in identifying that they perceive others' opinions more valuable than their own, the readers are left with little sense of who this writer is apart from the desire to please others. Narrative 3: academic_nut Primary Themes Connected: Advisor Role and Relationship, Support Network, Perception by Others, Goals AUTHOR: academic_nut TITLE: Thinking of quitting grad school in the 6th year SELFTEXT: I'm using a throwaway account. My advisor relationship has grown steadily more antagonistic to the point where I think he is actively holding me back from graduating. I'm a 6th year engineering PhD at an Ivy with one paper published and another paper ready to submit. I was set to defend in March with 100 pgs of my thesis written already. All of a sudden, my advisor wants to enforce a 3‐papers‐published‐before‐graduation rule—a rule that he has not done with any of his previous graduate students. Not a single one in over a decade. I find the requirement ridiculous because papers can easily be stuck in revision for a year in my field and would bump my total time to 7 years+. I've gradually lost respect for my advisor. He's pretty much not an expert in anything, but uses his position as a gatekeeper to the equipment to get his name on a lot of papers. He is on terrible terms with half the department, and they don't talk though there is ample room for productive cooperation. I really like my research/thesis and have gotten to the point where I am independent. In some weird way, I feel my advisor finds this threatening, which is leading him to become incredibly critical of my work. My coworkers/authors (staff researcher and assistant professors) have complimented my work so I think my advisor's concerns are unfounded. On this backdrop of a dysfunctional department divided into political hegemonies, I don't know where to go for advice. I feel the science deans or department head will side with the professor. To me it almost seems like a tacit understanding that graduate students are like serfs. I've had overall positive experiences in grad school but now the psychological torment of another year or quitting in the 6th year is starting to really drag me down. I feel if I quit, I would land on my feet eventually due to the skills I've acquired and references from my coworkers. Sorry about the long post, but what does Reddit think are my options? TL;DR. Advisor has become increasingly critical of my work though coauthors approve, and I'm thinking of quitting rather than doing another year or more. Academic_nut 's narrative centers around adverse experiences with the theme of Advisor Role and Relationship, the most dominant code used to analyze the post. As a backdrop, though, the Support Network, Goals, and Perception of Others themes also emerge in this post, but not in the ways they have emerged in prior posts. For example, the Support Network in academic_nut ' s circumstance is other researchers in the department, many of whom are colleagues, who seem to perceive this student as qualified and capable. Indeed, the student has already accomplished many scholarly milestones, including publications—an indicator of external scholarly validation. There seems to be a great deal of tension between what the student considered to be the benchmark or goals to accomplish before earning a PhD in relationship to the advisor's inconsistent metrics for this particular student. Unlike the narratives of imagradschoolquitter and sadstudent15 , academic_nut 's narrative contains consistent language in terms of their own self‐confidence in the ability to complete a PhD under normal circumstances and the ability to “land on [their] feet” if they were to leave graduate school. The complexities in this narrative arise from the tension of the discrepancies in Perceptions by Others. For example, embedded within the advisor's new “three paper”' rule is the implicit perception that academic_nut is not ready to graduate, yet the other professors and colleagues seem to be supportive of the student's research and capabilities. The Perception by Others theme intersects with Quality of Life and Work, as academic_nut highlights emerging critiques of academia, the department, and the advisor within departmental “hegemony” and “politics” and the perception that graduate students are viewed as “serfs.” Narrative 4: Harperssocks Primary Themes: Advisor Role and Relationship, Quality of Life and Work, Perception by Others, Goals AUTHOR: Harperssocks. TITLE: Urgent Help! Told to leave PhD after PASSING my prelim. SELFTEXT: I am a PhD student, starting my third year, and an NSF‐GRFP fellow (2 more years remaining). Yesterday I successfully defended and passed my departments Written Examination. Several professors wanted to fail me and there were reservations but I passed. Afterwards I was told they want me to discontinue my PhD and leave the program with a Masters degree. This is unprecedented and took me by complete surprise. My adviser has told me I am smart, creative, I have a strong work ethic, and everything I've suggested we do in my project he has approved. He is a new professor trying to get tenure and I am his first PhD student. I was originally co‐advised but left another professor because he was emotionally abusive. There were no conditional passes, suggestions to take courses to fill in educational gaps, or chances to revise my proposal (which is within the examinations guidelines). I am extremely uncertain how to proceed. My adviser sent me an email confirming in writing—I passed my exam and they want me to leave. I e‐mailed the Head of the Department (who likes me to my knowledge) and am awaiting a response. I do not know what to do and any help or advice is appreciated. At this point—even if I COULD return to my PhD I am extremely skeptical since I no longer feel like my department supports me. I may try to leverage my 2 fellowship years to a new program but academia has left a really bad impression on me at the moment. <3 thank you. AUTHOR: Harperssocks. TITLE: [Update] Told to leave PhD program after passing my prelim. SELFTEXT: I really want to thank everyone for their support and recommendations. I have a small update and a lot of hard thinking ahead. My adviser and I met yesterday and he did offer me a very sincere apology. Some faculty would like me to leave but my adviser has the final say and wants me to continue (he is new and went along with consensus). He made some conditions for me to stay which mainly continue what I'm doing, and he would like to meet weekly and write a review paper together (I would have loved to do this before it was a “condition”). He has been really wonderful and has largely let me direct my work. He even supports me doing my own queer science outreach events. The bad news—My department still is against me. I've hated being in the building after I left my emotionally abusive advisor and am now even more terrified. My emotionally abusive ex‐advisor is still connected to my funding and a part of my project. He is even on “sabbatical” and hired himself as his own “post doc” working alongside me on the project. He barely shows up to work and I've never seen him in lab so I'm not too worried about him. **Where I am currently at:** * I am grossed out by academia and not sure if I want to be a part of it * I have 2 years of NSF funds that I should not waste by leaving (but am willing to) * I do not need a PhD to teach community/tech college (current goal—but the PhD helps) * I wish I were doing more math/engineering (microbiology focused enviro. Engineering lab). Consulting would let me do that * I love the idea of stability from a job, pay off loans, and reclaim a life/work balance * If I stay with this program, I can leave with my Masters at any time. If I leave now, I cannot return. I am leaning towards staying since my adviser has been pretty wonderful despite terrible experiences with the rest of the faculty. I would love any questions or comments you have asked yourself to tease out emotions on big decisions. Thank you all again <3 Harperssocks ' story is one that confronts the sociological norms and expectations of academia. Language used in the post indicates that Harperssocks may not entirely fit within many of the norms of academia or engineering. For example, the mention of conducting queer science outreach events is an explicit refusal to accept the heteronormative and predominantly male engineering culture. The theme Perception by Others manifests not in the sense of how others think about the decision to leave or stay in academia; however, because this student does not know how others perceive them, they seem to be afraid for their physical and/or emotional safety (Quality of Life and Work). More than just an unhealthy culture, Harperssocks indicates that others' perceptions make them “now even more terrified” to be in their building. Although Harperssocks seems to have academic potential, having been awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and although this student is supported by their advisor (Advisor Role and Relationship), who “has been pretty wonderful,” Harperssocks is considering leaving graduate school. The decision, though, is further complicated by Harperssocks ' professional ambitions (Goals), which include teaching at the community college level, a goal that can more easily be achieved with a PhD. This student has reflected on the possible avenues for the future, which could also include consulting and reclaiming work‐life balance (future Quality of Life and Work) but could also translate to pursuing PhD work at another university, leveraging a highly competitive, transferrable fellowship. As such, Harperssocks continued to reach out to the Reddit network to ask advice on how others “tease out” complex important decisions. Publisher Copyright: © 2019 ASEE
PY - 2020/1/1
Y1 - 2020/1/1
N2 - Background: Graduate engineering student attrition is prevalent, but most literature that studies graduate attrition is accomplished in disciplines outside of STEM or engineering, yielding an incomplete understanding of either attrition or persistence. Purpose/Hypothesis: The purpose of this article is to investigate the relationships between motivators of attrition for engineering graduate students. Design/Method: Data were collected using an online Web-scraping “bot” that mines data from the online forum Reddit. The anonymous textual forum threads collected were qualitatively analyzed through open-coding methods. Results: The emergent themes reveal the interconnectedness between the roles of the advisor, student perception of cost, their support network, goals, their perceptions of how others perceive them, and quality of life and work. Our model is flexible in that it illuminates underlying combinations of factors that can influence student attrition. Conclusion: This study provides a framework by which various stakeholders can approach the support and education of graduate students, including mentoring students both toward or away from graduate school per the student's goals.
AB - Background: Graduate engineering student attrition is prevalent, but most literature that studies graduate attrition is accomplished in disciplines outside of STEM or engineering, yielding an incomplete understanding of either attrition or persistence. Purpose/Hypothesis: The purpose of this article is to investigate the relationships between motivators of attrition for engineering graduate students. Design/Method: Data were collected using an online Web-scraping “bot” that mines data from the online forum Reddit. The anonymous textual forum threads collected were qualitatively analyzed through open-coding methods. Results: The emergent themes reveal the interconnectedness between the roles of the advisor, student perception of cost, their support network, goals, their perceptions of how others perceive them, and quality of life and work. Our model is flexible in that it illuminates underlying combinations of factors that can influence student attrition. Conclusion: This study provides a framework by which various stakeholders can approach the support and education of graduate students, including mentoring students both toward or away from graduate school per the student's goals.
UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?scp=85076088466&partnerID=8YFLogxK
UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/citedby.url?scp=85076088466&partnerID=8YFLogxK
U2 - 10.1002/jee.20299
DO - 10.1002/jee.20299
M3 - Article
AN - SCOPUS:85076088466
VL - 109
SP - 125
EP - 147
JO - Engineering education
JF - Engineering education
SN - 1069-4730
IS - 1