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Cox’s new book aims to transform engineering doctoral education

a group of four graduate engineering students work on a projectCox's new book offers recommendations for better preparing engineering PhD students for their future careers. (photo credit: Raul Mosley)How well do engineering PhD programs prepare graduate students for their future careers? This is a topic explored in a new book written by Professor Monica F. Cox, chair of the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University.

Her book, Demystifying the Engineering PhD, includes insights from dozens of engineering professionals working across both academia and industry. Topics covered include their motivations for obtaining a PhD, the added value of an engineering doctoral degree and career options for PhD holders.

“For some time I have been intrigued by the misalignment of engineering doctoral preparation with the implementation of professional skills such as communication and leadership in the workplace,” said Cox.

This curiosity led her to submit a proposal for a National Science Foundation grant to explore the career preparation of engineering graduate students. In January 2010, she received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for the proposed work. Cox and her research team collected so much data that she wanted to place it in a book that told a cohesive story across 40 respondents.

She chose to focus on both academia and industry given the limited number of tenure-track positions available for science and engineering doctoral graduates. Other influences include the negative views that some faculty have about jobs outside of academia, and the misalignment of graduate training to the career goals of many engineering students.

Monica F. CoxMonica F. CoxIn her ongoing conversations with engineering PhD holders working in industry, Cox realized that their experiences varied from engineering faculty working in academia.

“Engineering professionals working outside academia engaged with business concepts and profitability for their organization—that was their bottom line,” she said. “As a result, I wanted to know what it meant to possess an engineering PhD. Also, what were the expectations and characteristics of engineering PhD holders, and what could be done to enhance doctoral students?”

Cox said her previous experience teaching a graduate class helped her learn firsthand how difficult it is for engineering doctoral students to translate what they learn in graduate school to practice in a nonacademic setting. 

“It’s just a different way of thinking,” she added.

The book will help readers gain insights into diverse engineering work environments and explores ways to transition across engineering sectors and careers. The publication concludes with recommendations for transforming engineering doctoral education to better prepare students for their future career, regardless of what sector they enter.

“Although an engineering PhD holder is expected to be technically proficient and know the fundamentals of their discipline, they must demonstrate professional skills as well,” said Cox.

Cox chose the title of the book, Demystifying the Engineering PhD due to the stereotypes that face engineers, which can either propel or hinder the profession. She wanted to share the stories of engineers who represent diverse perspectives and who do intriguing work across various institutions and companies.

“Demystification became a form of teaching for me, and I hope that anyone who didn’t know much about doctoral education or engineering PhD holders can be enlightened by my book,” she said.

She also hopes the book will help “demystify” engineering education, since there is still confusion among some groups regarding the field and its research.

 “Advancing engineering education requires that we talk about what happens before and after one enters the field,” Cox said. “Sharing insights about the workplace for an engineering professional is also important because it grants potential students access to a field that they may not have envisioned for themselves.”

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu