Aldridge’s NSF award promotes persistence of engineering PhD students

Posted: November 17, 2022
Three chemical and biomolecular engineering researchers work in the lab.

A diverse engineering workforce leads to increased creativity and innovation, and more professionals with doctorates are needed in the field. But many engineering students from underrepresented groups abandon their doctoral programs before graduation.

Engineering Education Research Assistant Professor Julie Aldridge not only wants to find out why; she wants to stop it from happening. With funding from a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) Collaborative Research award, Aldridge is examining the organizational climates of engineering doctoral programs to guide efforts that promote the persistence and retention of doctoral students in engineering. Her project will receive $713,155 over four years and is supported by NSF's EHR Core Research program.

“The numbers tell us that women and women of color leave engineering PhD programs in greater numbers than men, and research tells us that a department’s climate can influence whether a student stays on and completes their doctorate,” said Aldridge.

Julie Aldridge

While the number of women completing STEM doctorates has risen, the proportion of women earning engineering PhDs remains low. And, in 2019, while 24.1% of engineering doctorates were earned by women, only 1.4% were earned by Hispanic, Black and Native American women.

“Student attrition results in a loss of talent to the national endeavor of research and discovery at universities fueling U.S. economic growth, and unwelcoming organizational climates in engineering doctoral programs likely contribute to this attrition,” said Aldridge. “Our team intends to create an instrument to measure those climates. We are designing a survey to find out how engineering doctoral students feel about being part of their departments.”

The goal of the project is to examine doctoral students’ perceptions of the factors that impact their persistence in degree completion and the differences in experiencing those factors based on intersecting social categories. Aldridge’s project adopts an explicitly intersectional approach to the meaning and relevance of students’ belonging to multiple social categories, including gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, considered within the context of engineering doctoral education. Drawing on organizational climate research and intersectionality theory, the project’s multidisciplinary team aims to use a student-centered approach to shed light on multiple climates by engaging with students from diverse groups.

“The NSF asked if we could expand the project’s scope and include a focus on engineering doctoral students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Aldridge. “This is a diverse group that often gets overlooked in research about how to increase diversity in engineering.”

To achieve a comprehensive picture of departmental climate and persistence—which may differ by intersectional group, major and institution type—iterative and complementary cycles of project implementation are planned during the four-year project. In year one, researchers will use findings from the quantitative pilot climate survey approach to inform the qualitative design. The team aims to repeat this process in year two to develop, refine and validate the final survey instrument. In partnership with the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), the final survey will be administered in years three and four to engineering doctoral students, and findings will be shared with engineering deans.

The research team includes: Nicole Else Quest, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; So Yoon Yoon, assistant professor of engineering and computing education at University of Cincinnati; and Joe Roy, director of institutional research and analytics at ASEE.

A social scientist who focuses on leadership and organizational innovation, Aldridge joined The Ohio State University’s Department of Engineering Education in 2020. Prior to that role, she was a postdoctoral scholar at Ohio State. She earned her bachelor’s in art at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio; her master’s in natural resources from Ohio State; and her PhD in agricultural communication, education and leadership from Ohio State.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |