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Research in Practice

Student to Engineer

Portfolio-building helps crystallize a professional identity.

By Matt Eliot and Jennifer Turns

JEE SelectsHow do students build their identities as professional engineers while learning about the roles and responsibilities related to professional engineering practice? By what process does this identity construction occur, and how can we as educators more effectively guide it? Our study, funded by the National Science Foundation, used portfolio construction as a context to investigate these questions.
Professional identity can be defined as personal identification with the duties, responsibilities, and knowledge associated with a professional role. The process of developing professional identity involves a negotiation between the social expectations related to a specific professional role and the needs, wants, and aptitude of the individual engaging in that role. In other words, professional identity construction occurs as we make sense of the natural flow of events in our professional and personal lives.

In our study, we investigated professional identity construction in engineering undergraduate students by asking them to construct cross-curricular portfolios featuring examples of their best work to date. Students participated in four workshops to learn how to create their portfolios. During the workshops, they received brief instructions and many opportunities for group discussion and peer review. The students also completed online questionnaires that asked about their experience of creating and sharing their portfolios. Participant responses to a subset of questions from these surveys were analyzed for this study.

The results of the analysis revealed that students engaged in two processes for constructing professional identity while creating their portfolios: an “external” sense-making process that involved new understandings about themselves related to the perceived expectations of other people, and an “internal” sense-making process involving new realizations about their own abilities, goals, and values as engineers. Many students engaged in both sense-making processes.

Participants employing an external frame of reference submitted responses that revealed three processes of professional identity construction: framing themselves as job applicants, particularly focusing on what others will expect of them when that role is enacted; creating a persuasive case, an argument to others about their preparedness for professional practice; and comparing themselves to others in order to make better sense of their standing with their peers regarding their progression toward being professionals.

Participants employing the internal frame of reference submitted responses that revealed six processes underlying professional identity construction: reframing events in their personal history and increasing the relevance of these events to participants’ development as engineers, defining themselves as engineers and claiming membership in the field of engineering, constructing their future trajectories toward becoming professional engineers, realizing and articulating their own values as engineers, defining their interpretation of engineering practice, and developing their abilities to construct narratives about themselves.

The external frame of reference categories read like a classic American career road map: Be a good applicant, sell yourself in the interview, and know how you compare to your competition. These opportunities reflect the “business” of professional education, which is to ensure the high post-graduation employment rates that serve as one indicator of program excellence.

While external frame activities are often supported by events such as career fairs and résumé workshops, it is more difficult to pinpoint structured opportunities where engineering undergraduates can build professional identity through internal frame of reference activities such as reframing personal history or defining themselves as engineers. Our findings suggest that participants found the professional portfolio activity to be exceptional in the best sense of the word. Participant comments such as “This {portfolio activity}allowed me to” or “this forced me to” suggest that the range of identity-related thinking prompted by the exercise was unprecedented or novel for many of these participants. Given its effectiveness and the richness of its impact, the professional portfolio activity is an important support for our students’ professional identity development.


Matt Eliot is a senior research project officer at CQUniversity Australia. Jennifer Turns is an associate professor at the University of Washington. This article is an abstract from “Constructing Professional Portfolios: Sense-Making and Professional Identity Development for Engineering Undergraduates” in the October 2011 Journal of Engineering Education.




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