While some engineers in master’s programs continue with the field they originally studied, there are many others who change to a new discipline. It would be beneficial for universities and students alike to understand why people are staying in their field or migrating, but there is limited research to this effect. This paper will explore why people make these changes, who is changing, and what impact these changes might have.
This investigation was carried out through a mixed method study, utilizing a survey and a follow-up interview. The survey was administered to 295 people, and 52 of them were subsequently interviewed. The participants were drawn from around the United States, and were United States citizens and permanent residents. The survey included sections on demographics, academic information and experience, confidence, alignment of the master’s degree with work, academic advising, choice of school, future plans, and motivation for graduate study. The interview was semi-structured. It probed people about their preparedness for graduate study, their retention of knowledge from their undergraduate degree, but most importantly it focused on the connection between work experience and graduate study. Standard statistical methods were used to analyze the survey data, while open coding was performed on the interview data.
Analysis of the survey data shows that there are no demographic correlations to a discipline change apart from age and work experience, i.e., returner status; older students who had worked for some period of time were more likely to change disciplines than younger students who did not have work experience. Data also shows that there is no statistically significant difference in Graduate Records Exam (GRE) scores between the two groups. On the other hand, there are some significant differences between those who change discipline and those who do not. Those who change disciplines had, statistically, a lower GPA as undergraduates than those who did not; however, their graduate GPA was higher than those who stayed in the same discipline, contradicting the assumption that changing disciplines might cause lower performance due to lack of preparation. Moreover, the results show when people change discipline, the new discipline is more aligned with the jobs they are doing or the jobs they had done than those who continue with the same degree path. The paper will further discuss the significant differences as well as the results of the interviews, and will explore the implications for students and for universities.
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