CRA Logo

About CRA
CRA for Students
CRA for Faculty
Computing Community Consortium (CCC)
Government Affairs
Computing Research Policy Blog
Data & Resources
CRA Bulletin
What's New

<< Back to May 2004 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the May 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 3, pp. 2, 23.]

CRA-W's Graduate Cohort Workshop

By Ishwinder Kaur, Julie Weber, Jan Cuny, Lori Pollock, and Mary Lou Soffa

Across all academic fields, the percentage of women who earn doctorates is gradually approaching parity with the percentage of men who earn doctorates. If the rates of increase continue as in the past 10 years, women will reach parity with men with respect to earned doctorates across all fields by 2007-08, and across science and engineering by 2012-13. However, women will not achieve parity with men in Computer Science until 2088! [1]. CRA-W's newest program, the Graduate Cohort Program, aims to address this underrepresentation by building cohorts of graduate students and mentoring them through their graduate years. The kickoff event for the program was a workshop sponsored by Microsoft, with additional support from the National Science Foundation and the ACM SIGS.

"Sponsoring this workshop allowed us to take a proactive role regarding the issue of retaining women in CS graduate programs. We are thrilled to have been a part of making this happen, and hope that its success spurs interest for industry support of future efforts." [Kevin Schofield, General Manager, Strategy and Communications, Microsoft]

In this article, we describe the goals and structure of the Graduate Cohort Program, and include student responses to the first Cohort workshop held on February 6 and 7, 2004.

Excited by the "incredibly cool" prospect of joining the first cohort, 102 women from 63 academic institutions across North America attended the Grad Cohort Workshop in Seattle, Washington. The attendees were all in their first year of graduate school in either computer science or computer engineering programs. Two participants commented:

"I graduated from Wellesley College last spring, but of the dozens of computer science students who graduated with me, I was the only one who chose to enroll in a CS Ph.D. program. I came to the workshop intrigued by the idea of a convention room filled solely with women whose interests truly matched my own! I was excited about how much there would be to learn from one another." [Julie Weber]

"I came to the workshop to meet women in Computer Science. Having studied with just two other women in a class of 40 for all of my undergrad years, I was intensely curious to know other women doing the same stuff I was doing. I looked forward to the prospect of forming a nationwide cohort, getting and sharing help and support, and finding a forum for expression. It was a treat." [Ishwinder Kaur]

The goals of the workshop were to provide the students with access to information, a variety of female role models, networking skills and experience, and a peer support community.

Many departments do not have standardized means of relaying information to students, but instead rely on informal social networks. For various reasons, women may be less likely to participate in these networks; their male adviser may be more comfortable engaging in outside social activities with students of the same gender, for example, or the student may be reticent to join groups and activities they perceive as male-dominated. The Cohort Workshop included a number of formal presentations covering topics such as how to: 1) get through the first years of grad school, 2) build a research project, 3) finish a thesis, 4) become established in a research community, and 5) get involved in the professional communities beyond your department. Attendees commented:

"The formal presentations were a great way to learn good strategies for making things work, inside and outside of the office. I especially enjoyed listening to accomplished professors give us the details about how they made it to where they are and how they personally managed their time when to me it seems impossible. And the advice was plentiful!" [Weber]

"In fact, the formal presentations were hardly formal, and the stage was set for extreme interaction right from the first talk. Students queued up at the microphone in huge numbers, waiting for their turn to ask questions. This exemplifies our immense, unfulfilled curiosity and urge to know stuff about grad school and grad life. It's hard to find an avenue to turn to for these types of questions." [Kaur]

"I had expected a serious and formal affair. But I was pleasantly surprised with the really frank, honest, ask-anything, no-holds-barred attitude. I was excited to meet big names in industry and academia, but you know what-they were equally, if not more so, eager to meet the students." [Kaur]

Graduate students need to see a variety of female role models with a range of attitudes and approaches to life. They need to know successful women who have been able to balance the demands of career and family life, and they need to be exposed to the many rewards of a research career. Eighteen senior women from academics and industry provided these role models. Students commented:

"We got to meet some amazing and impressive women, each unique, but each an example, an inspiration, a role model in her own right." [Kaur]

"Listening to all these success stories was great. I especially like the fact that all these women had lunch/dinner with us and shared more stories. The speakers were AWESOME!" [Anonymous]

"These amazing women professors in CS are actually cool. They are not only smart but they have families and personalities." [Anonymous]

Networking is clearly important. It gives students a chance to meet others with similar interests and concerns, find role models, build a trusted group of advisers, experience a wider range of research, make technical contacts, and become known. The workshop included a session on Networking Skills and a number of social events (breaks, lunch, and a reception with additional guests from Microsoft and the University of Washington) that provided opportunities to practice newly acquired skills.

"During the reception, I had a long discussion about the US socio-economic scenario and US-Indian trade relations with Phil Bernstein from Microsoft Research, something I least expected. I was "networking" and it was turning out to be lots of fun!" [Kaur]

Peer support has a significant impact on persistence in CS&E graduate programs, and perhaps beyond. Women may well have close professional relationships with men in their home departments, but there is a special value to having a critical mass of female colleagues as well. The primary goal of the Cohort Project is to create self-sustaining peer-support groups among the participants. Many participants listed the knowledge that they were "not alone" in their experiences as the most important result of the workshop.

"The best part about the workshop was the opportunity to meet other students. At the workshop hotel, we were put up in double rooms with other women attendees. Starting out as strangers sharing the room, we ended up becoming trusted acquaintances for life. I got to meet and share experiences with other students who were as lost in graduate life as I was, but both of us, suddenly, no longer as lost for having found each other. The biggest benefit was the feeling, "Oh, then I am not the only one!" Be it the uncertainty you have about being right for grad school or about fitting in at your department, there was always someone else who had also gone through it." [Kaur]

"I left the workshop feeling energized to go back to my home institution with more of a drive to succeed. I was convinced that it was our time to rock the system. To me, that group of 100+ women contained so much talent and so much excitement that it is hard to believe that we will not go forward and change the world, a heady feeling indeed." [Kaur]

Over the next few years, the Graduate Cohort Program will provide ongoing mentoring and support to the students who attended the workshop. Plans include both electronic activities (e-mail discussion groups, virtual panels with senior women participating, electronic poster sessions, research overviews by senior women, etc.), and face-to-face, research-related activities (regional meetings, matching mentors with mentees for specific conferences, using bulletin boards to connect cohort members attending the same conferences, etc.). Our goal is to continue the Cohort Program by inviting the 2004 Cohort along with a 2005 Cohort to a second workshop next year. In addition, we would like to expand the program size. This year more than 200 students applied for our 100 openings; ideally we could welcome all interested students. CRA-W is currently looking for additional funding to support the Graduate Cohort Program.

Thanks to this year's speakers and sponsors (Microsoft, NSF, and the ACM SIGS) for making the workshop possible!

Ishwinder Kaur is a graduate student in the CIS Department at the University of Oregon and Julie Weber is a graduate student in the EECS Department at Tufts University. Jan Cuny (University of Oregon, CRA board vice chair), Lori Pollock (University of Delaware), and Mary Lou Soffa (University of Pittsburgh and CRA board member) are coordinators of the Grad Cohort for Women.

[1] Barbara M. Moskal, "A Summary of Results from the Survey of the Earned Doctorate: Women Earning Computer Science Doctorates," Computing Research News, pp. 2, 11; May 2002. (See /main/cra.pubs.html)

Search WWW Search

Copyright © 2007 Computing Research Association. All Rights Reserved. Questions? E-mail: