Overlapping Coping Mechanisms: The Hidden Landscapes of Stress Management in Engineering Doctoral Programs

Gabriella M. Sallai, Kanembe Shanachilubwa, Catherine G.P. Berdanier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As many as 70% of engineering graduate students in the United States consider departing their master’s and doctoral programs at any given time. This strong consideration for attrition relates to the chronic stress these students experience in graduate school and the engineering discipline’s normalization of stress in the name of academic rigor. The ongoing mental health crisis in higher education in the United States leads us to consider what stressors do engineering graduate students have to contend with and how are they coping with these stressors to improve their experiences and remain in their programs. In this work, we modify the COPE Inventory to be applicable to a graduate student context and explore these students coping mechanisms. Through semi-structured interviews with n = 42 engineering graduate students, content analysis, and an abductive approach, we determine the stressors including advisor relationship, research, department, questioning departure, negative mental health, and systemic stressors that our participants experience and the variety of coping mechanisms and coping styles they use to reduce these stressors. Results show that participants often combine coping mechanisms to manage their stress. The coping landscapes in this study visualize these combinations. The widespread use of multiple coping mechanisms at any given time indicates that engineering graduate students are actively trying to reduce their stress and that they must work hard doing invisible labor to persist through graduate school. Teaching students how to establish open communication with advisors and faculty and promoting support structures for students to know they are not alone in their experiences would greatly benefit engineering graduate students and improve retention and persistence in graduate programs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1513-1530
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Journal of Engineering Education
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • General Engineering

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