Monday, June 6, 2022

The Reality of Graduate School

by Denise Wilson, June 6, 2022

Graduate school involves many good things. But unfortunately, it tends to provide less of those good things for women in engineering doctoral programs.

Many of the important outcomes for graduate school relate to how you build knowledge for yourself and for your academic area. It is an opportunity to become an expert in a particular field. In engineering, graduate school is a chance to become a meaningful contributor to the knowledge economy. It's a place to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It's a time to dive deep into a specialized topic of research and discover something invent and innovate. It's a unique time to immerse oneself without interruption in underlying scientific principles and devise new ways to apply these principles to the betterment of society.  

But graduate school should be about much more than developing technical expertise. Graduate school can also be a time of building community, through networking among peers and among a wide range of professionals, from professors to industry leaders. It should be a time to build confidence and conviction in pursuing the career that lies ahead, whether it be in academia, in the corporate sector, or in the non-profit world. Graduate school should be a time of not only learning and skill building but also a time of finding one's place in the vast landscape of science, technology, and engineering. 

Regardless of how graduate school varies by individual experience, once the PhD is stamped next to a person's name, the individual who earned it should feel nothing less than welcome, invited, appreciated, and capable in their respective research community.  

Unfortunately, a recent study of 913 doctoral students across 112 universities and 23 engineering disciplines suggests that for too many women, this is not at all what happens for them as they enter and progress through their graduate programs in engineering. 16% of non-White women said that they had been treated unfairly by their primary research advisor and 20% reported unfair treatment from graduate student peers. These numbers rose to 20% and 22% for women from marginalized race or ethnicity, including American Indian or Alaska Native; Black or African American; Hispanic; Latino/Latina/Latinx or Spanish origin; Middle Eastern or North African; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; or another race or ethnicity that was not Asian or White.  

When these graduate student women were asked more specifically about the negative experiences that they had been exposed to during their graduate programs, many reported that their ideas were not given a fair shake at the research table. 43% of non-White women overall, and 20% of women from marginalized groups, said that it was quite common to see a female graduate student present an idea and get no response while a male student presenting the same idea would be acknowledged. 36% of non-White women and 30% of women from marginalized groups also reported that their peers attempted to exert authority over them because of their gender. In terms of positive experiences in their graduate programs, less than a quarter of all non-White women thought that their research advisor treated students of different race and ethnicity the same.  

Unfair treatment of graduate students can increase feelings of isolation, decrease sense of belonging, and impair motivation at a time in professional and intellectual growth where these are most needed to empower the student to reach their full potential. Psychologically, loss of belonging can reduce the likelihood that students will seek help for both intellectual and emotional concerns, thereby exacerbating the ongoing mental health crisis among graduate students.   

Even more so than in the undergraduate years, marginalization, discrimination, and other forms of inequitable or unfair treatment need to be eradicated from graduate school laboratories and programs. Nothing less will do when it comes to training and preparing bright, talented PhD candidates to become meaningful and significant contributors to a society and world that needs solutions to tough and complex problems.   

This blog reports data from the following study:
Bahnson, M., Hope, E.C., Satterfield, D.J., Alexander, A.R., Allam, L., and Kirn, A. (2022). Students’ Experiences of Discrimination in Engineering Doctoral Education. Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN, United States.

Denise Wilson is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research interests in engineering education focus on belonging, engagement, and instructional support for students at all levels.

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