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<< Back to November 2003 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the November 2003 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 15/No. 5, p. 2]

Research Career Mentoring Déjà Vu…

By Lori Pollock

A decade had passed. It was now June 2003. We were back in San Diego for the kickoff weekend of the Federated Computing Research Conference. The room was filled with 129 women in computer science and engineering from across the country. Senior female researchers from industrial and national laboratories and universities, funding agency directors, pre-tenure university faculty, and senior graduate students all gathered for the CRA-W Workshop on Research Careers for Women in Computer Science and Engineering. There was a shared sense of déjà vu as many of the women reminisced about the premiere workshop on academic research career mentoring held a decade ago, also with FCRC and also in San Diego! However, this year, besides program changes and many new faces, there was one significant difference. Mentees who had been sitting in the audience 10 years ago had now taken their places at the front of the room as qualified research career mentors. The personal positive impact of the early workshop was made undeniably evident when these mentors shared their stories.

Since 1993, CRA-W has held career mentoring workshops in conjunction with Supercomputing ’94 and with FCRC in 1996 and 1999, and has been involved in mentoring sessions at the Grace Murray Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the 1996 Design Automation Conference. Holding the mentoring workshops in conjunction with disciplinary conferences enables attendees to attend a technical conference in their research area, and to leverage the networking skills learned at the mentoring workshop. By providing mentoring workshops every few years, CRA-W has been able to target a new generation of women researchers each cycle.

The goal of these workshops is to provide mentoring activities for women in professional research careers in computer science and engineering. The workshop is structured to provide researchers at all levels with critical information about the culture of and content required for professional research, and contacts with successful role models and mentors. For the past few instantiations, the workshop has lasted a day and a half; it has featured common sessions focusing on topics pertinent to all participants, and parallel sessions for topics of primary interest to a single constituency. Usually attended primarily by junior academic researchers and senior graduate students, this year the pre-tenure track organized by Adele Howe included panels on the tenure process; getting funding; the job search process; and teaching, advising, and service. Panels in the post-tenure track, led by Mary Lou Soffa, focused on going up the ladder from associate to full professor, career options beyond research, and planning and realizing a successful sabbatical experience. The industry/national laboratory track, organized by Wendy Kellogg, included panels on models for research, career options, and strategies for success in industry and the national laboratories. The common sessions focused on research as a career; establishing and nurturing research collaborations; bringing undergraduates into your research program; and time management, family, and quality of life issues. Each panel consisted of three panelists, with a total of 41 senior women speakers. The format was short presentations followed by open discussion. To facilitate networking between senior and junior researchers within the same research area, the first luncheon was organized to cluster researchers by general research topics.

Consistent with previous workshops, we received many comments from participants who indicated that the workshop has inspired them to make positive and important changes in their professional lives. Additionally, equipped with tips and guidance and inspirational stories, the women were excited to go home and share information and advice with others at their local institutions. The overwhelming success of these workshops can be attributed to a key combination of characteristics, including: relevant topic selection; successful senior women speakers who are able to share their stories and advice freely; an informal and comfortable atmosphere; short presentations of practical information in combination with plenty of open discussion time; opportunities for networking through breaks, meals, and evening events; travel support for speakers and participants who need assistance (through grants from NSF); and co-location with a large technical conference.

When the panelists who attended the workshop ten years ago were asked about the influence of the workshop on their lives, one enthusiastically noted that she decided as she sat in the audience that she wanted to be one of those women who demonstrated success and balance in their lives, and she left with a charge of energy setting out with that goal in mind. So many role models were presenting during the short day and a half that each person in the audience was bound to find herself feeling similar in personality and background to at least one of them, enabling her to easily identify with the goals and resulting successes of that person. The audience was overwhelmed with role models who are articulate people with families and very fruitful careers. In stark contrast to many women’s home institutions, this environment creates an excitement to set new goals and meet new challenges.

CRA-W has initiated several other series of workshops with the goals of mentoring women in computer science and engineering in other ways. The first mentoring workshop directed toward graduate students and faculty members at all levels who are interested in undergraduate education was held at ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education in 2002, followed by a second instantiation at SIGCSE in 2003. This series of workshops provides important information to women in undergraduate teaching and research who face particular challenges in pursuing and maintaining academic careers at primarily undergraduate academic institutions.

Also following the same model, the first Grad Cohort Workshop, sponsored by Microsoft, will be held February 6-7, 2004 in Seattle, Washington. It will welcome a cohort of female computer science and engineering students in their first year of grad school. These students will be participating in a program called the Grad Cohort Program, a new CRA-W project that will build and mentor a nationwide community of women through their graduate studies, as they make the transition from student to researcher. Students will meet for two days with 10 to 15 senior researchers who will share pertinent information on transition from student to researcher, as well as more personal information and insights about their experiences, with a format similar to the career mentoring workshops.

Another mentoring project that involves a similar professional development seminar is the Cohort of Associate Professors Project (CAPP), sponsored by an ADVANCE grant from NSF. It aims to increase the percentage of computer science and engineering women faculty with the rank of full professor by forming and mentoring a cohort of women from the associate professor ranks. The two-day intensive CAPP Professional Development Seminar for this year’s cohort will be held April 30-May 1, 2004 in Denver, Colorado. Cohort members, that is, recently promoted associate professors, will all attend, along with 15 women newly appointed as CRA-W Distinguished Professors. Critical career information will be discussed in a format that emphasizes role models, networking, and peer community building. A number of professional development workshops are planned to provide help with skills, strategies, career planning, and information gathering. The workshops will be highly interactive, including time for discussions and social interactions along with more formal presentations and panels.

While a decade has brought a bit of déjà vu, there has been a significant broadening in scope from the first mentoring workshop, with workshops now targeting many levels of the pipeline form entering graduate students, to senior graduate students and pre-tenure faculty, to post-tenure faculty, to industry and government lab researchers. In addition to workshops, the upcoming mentoring activities focus on forming cohorts that provide a longer-term mentoring experience. What will we be seeing a decade from now, in 2013? Hopefully, a positive change in the pipeline.

Lori L. Pollock, Associate Professor, Department of Computer and Information Sciences, University of Delaware, chaired the 2003 CRA-W Research Career Mentoring Workshop.

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