Preparing and Progressing: A Narrative Study of Optics and Photonics Graduate Students' Identity-Trajectory


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Virginia Tech


Identity development, through time, of graduate students is a topic understudied in most disciplines, and completely unstudied in optics and photonics. As a physical science and engineering discipline with blossoming scientific value, optics and photonics is growing a small number of graduate programs. With this growth, a more in depth and detailed understanding of the exposure, recruitment, development and enrollment experiences of those students are needed. Identity-trajectory offers a promising theoretical framework to understand academic and professional development of professionals through time and has been shown to be reliable in many social science and humanities disciplines. The narrative methodology is emerging in use and acceptance within the engineering education research community. The provoking combination of a growing discipline, a theoretical framework with little prior application in physical science and engineering, with a creative methodology were intentionally selected for this study.

A semi-structured interview protocol was developed to prompt participants through a reflective description of their academic and professional development. Twenty-five current and recent graduate students from nine degree granting optics and photonics graduate programs participated in the study. In addition to participating in the interview, averaging about forty-five minutes, participants submitted a curriculum vita in advance of the interview. Both the interview and the vita provide the primary data used in this study. Interview transcripts were coded with the theory of identity-trajectory's three strands: intellectual development, institutional influence and network.

The findings are grouped into pre-graduate training and graduate development experiences. Considering pre-graduate training, research experience as an undergraduate facilitates future decisions and access to graduate education. For graduate students, the structural experience within the graduate program, specifically related to research, facilitate progress through the program and beyond. The graduate program experience generally prepares students for academic research, but not the broader career pathways that students seek and eventually follow. All of these findings center on the laboratory, as the conduit for developing undergraduates to graduate students, and graduate students to professionals; the experience within the laboratory frames identity-trajectory throughout undergraduate and graduate experiences. These findings were used to provide strategies for departments, faculty and students in these fields, but are applicable in similarly structured disciplines.



Identity, Narrative, Graduate Education