Chatbots: A Tool to Supplement the Future Faculty Mentoring of Doctoral Engineering Students

Sylvia Mendez, Katie Johanson, Valerie Martin Conley, Kinnis Gosha, Naja A Mack, Comas Haynes, Rosario A Gerhardt
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 373-392

The purpose of this paper is to explore the efficacy of simulated interactive virtual conversations (chatbots) for mentoring underrepresented minority doctoral engineering students who are considering pursuing a career in the professoriate or in industry.

Chatbots were developed under the National Science Foundation INCLUDES Design and Developments Launch Pilot award (17-4458) and provide career advice with responses from a pre-programmed database populated by renowned emeriti engineering faculty. Chatbots have been engineered to fulfill a myriad of roles, such as undergraduate student advisement, but no research has been found that addresses their use with supplemental future faculty mentoring for doctoral students.

Chatbot efficacy is examined through a phenomenological design with focus groups with underrepresented minority doctoral engineering students. No theoretical or conceptual frameworks exist relative to chatbots designed for future faculty mentoring; therefore, an adaptation and implementation of the conceptual model posited on movie recommendations was utilized to ground this study. The four-stage process of phenomenological data analysis was followed: epoché, horizontalization, imaginative variation, and synthesis.

No studies have investigated the utility of chatbots in providing supplemental mentoring to future faculty. This phenomenological study contributes to this area of investigation and provides greater consideration into the unmet mentoring needs of these students, as well as the potential of utilizing chatbots for supplementary mentoring, particularly for those who lack access to high quality mentoring.

Following the data analysis process, the essence of the findings was, while underrepresented minority doctoral engineering students have ample unmet mentoring needs and overall are satisfied with the user interface and trustworthiness of chatbots, their intent to use them is mixed due to a lack of personalization in this type of supplemental mentoring relationship.

One of the major challenges faced by underrepresented doctoral engineering students is securing quality mentoring relationships that socialize them into the engineering culture and community of practice. While creating opportunities for students and incentivizing faculty to engage in the work of mentoring is needed, we must also consider the ways in which to leverage technology to offer supplemental future faculty mentoring virtually.

Additional research on the efficacy of chatbots in providing career-focused mentoring to future faculty is needed, as well as how to enhance the functionality of chatbots to create personal connections and networking opportunities, which are hallmarks of traditional mentoring relationships.

An understanding of the conceptual pathway that can lead to greater satisfaction with chatbots may serve to expand their use in the realm of mentoring. Scaling virtual faculty mentoring opportunities may be an important breakthrough in meeting mentoring needs across higher education.

Future chatbot research must focus on connecting chatbot users with human mentors; standardizing the process for response creation through additional data collection with a cadre of diverse, renowned faculty; engaging subject matter experts to conduct quality verification checks on responses; testing new responses with potential users; and launching the chatbots for a broad array of users.

chatbot, supplemental mentoring, engineering, underrepresented minority doctoral students
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