Rethinking the Engineering PhD

We prompt doctoral students to take deep dives into very narrow questions, implicitly encouraging them to think small. The narrowness of their research topics focuses them laser-like into silos that lie far from the interdisciplinary thinking that is required solve today’s wicked problems.

Despite exhortations over decades to break down the silos and stovepipes that narrow engineering disciplines, the integration of interdisciplinary research and education still faces institutional barriers. Doctoral programmes are overly specialized, offer fragmented curricula, in some cases addressing the self interests of legacy research groups that have disbanded rather than their significance to future graduates, and have become less relevant to sectors outside universities.

Besides, engineering students are typically encouraged to work on deterministic problems, where a solution depends only upon defined inputs and parameters. However, wicked problems are complex that, to reflect our incomplete comprehension of their underlying mechanisms, require an understanding of randomness and the nature of big data. Engineering students don’t routinely gain this insight.

Further, engineering doctoral students aren’t uniformly educated and trained to use logic, develop coherent hypotheses, or answer the foremost question about their research, “Who cares?” Unsurprisingly then, many graduates are unable to pitch their work in a way that even their peers in their research communities or departments, let alone policymakers, media and the general public, can understand.

Since they spend many years shadowing the work of their mentors, it is only natural that doctoral students aspire to become professors. In reality, a minority of engineering PhD graduates enter academia. Since most assume careers in the private sector and government, we must rethink our curricula to better address the complexities of our graduates’ future professions.

Hence, the PhD should be rethought along three foundational pillars:

  1. Provide doctoral students with more independence to explore their thesis topics and reduce the requirements for taking specified coursework that is unrelated to their development as scholars and practitioners,
  2. Insist that every student communicate peer reviewed original material as the primary author in multiple broadly defined  world class venues or arenas before graduating, and
  3. Ensure that students broaden their interdisciplinary lenses by working with mentors across disciplines, or that they learn to translate their research into practice, for instance by developing a minimum viable product.

There are a examples of programs that have been rethought along one or more of these foundational pillars, including at McMaster. We must broaden this thinking.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Engineering PhD

  1. Thank you for writing this post. Please consider attending the ICDDET (International Conference of Development in Doctoral Education and Training) in England next year. At ICDDET in 2015, doctoral educators came forward with a new practice of doctoral education ‘hubs’. These training hubs in the UK take down silos and encourage interdisciplinary research I believe. You might also be interested in the ‘sandbox’ idea, which was invented in the UK. Briefly, students from different disciplines, spend a day together in a ‘sandbox’ sharing, talking, and learning from each other.

    To re-think an Engineering PhD. to reflect the kind of experiences you discuss, the program would mandate:
    a.) Each student completes a 3 Minute Thesis, or some other kind of knowledge translation activity for credit toward a PhD. (How about a Dance your PhD contest, like the one Science magazine sponsors, as a side activity to get students thinking outside the box?)
    b.) Students could work together across disciplinary boundaries on an aspect of a wicked problem by undertaking collaborative research. Some universities are encouraging collaborative dissertations as in a final report,( April 2016) by a cross-disciplinary, doctoral education, ad hoc committee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the VPA at University of Alberta.
    c.) The assessment of a PhD engineering program that wanted journal publications, knowledge translation and interdisciplinary research to solve on wicked problems would need to move away from the traditional oral defense as the program would have different expectations than writing a solitary dissertation based on a narrow field.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the suggestions. They are on target!

      Although all of the suggestions are useful and can be immediately implemented, including the 3MT and ideas (a)-(c), I like the sandbox, which is so intuitive for breaking silos.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.