SWE Helps to Fix the Grad Student Leak in the Pipeline (Reports from WE12 this week in Houston, TX)

This is my second post from the Society of Women Engineers National Conference, WE12, this week in Houston,TX. You can find my first (Lovefest over SWE) here.

I am a grad student. I have been a grad student for more than three years. I both love and hate it. I love that I have freedom to pursue things that interest me. I can set my own schedule. I have access to a student fitness center that would cost $50/month out in the “real world”. I love working with people who are enthusiastic about their careers. I love that students are willing to embrace new technology and techniques.

I hate that I have no expectation of rest or vacation whether I work 40 hours or 100 hours a week. No one cares. I have a master’s degree in engineering. If I worked in the “real world,” I would make at least $65,000 a year. I make quite a bit less than that. The casual, no consequences mentality of student life often frustrates me. Graduate school is sometimes isolating. You work alone; you may not be taking classes: and you feel constantly on the brink of failure. I am not the only grad student who feels this way. It is especially challenging for those of us who return to grad school from a career in industry. I worked in industry for two years and I miss the disposable income! I can’t even imagine being a PhD student with a spouse and/or children. From what I observed, it is exhausting. So people leave, women leave. Industry wants more women with Masters and PhDs and academia certainly wants more women faculty but first these women have to be grad students, tired, poor grad students.

The national organization of the Society of Women Engineers national organization recognizes that grad students are underserved. Today, in a discussion, this question emerged: How can SWE serve grad students alongside undergrads, who are not of a single demographic. A MS student who is studying at her undergrad institution may be perfectly content to attend a tailgating party with undergrads. A grad student in her 30′s, with children, may not care about the university’s football team and may not want to bring her kids to an event with alcohol. Both women are grad students and both may need the community available through SWE.

Another problem is funding. (Isn’t it always about money?). National SWE cannot recognize more than one SWE section at a single institution, meaning that a student section of SWE must serve all students. Universities and other sources of student organization funding may fund either graduate or undergraduate organizations, but not both. The national organization is beginning to realize that it may be important to allow grad student organizations some level of independence from the undergrad section.

Finally, how do we create a sustainable organization, one that will continue after key leaders move on? The answer seems simple: Before the leaders leave they must transition leadership to new people. That is easier said than done. On Thursday, I met another one of those dynamic women that I gushed about in my first post. Gwen is a grad student at a great school. She created the grad SWE organization at her university and she wants it to continue after she graduates. She is choosing to take on more responsibility in the regional and national organization and ask other people to work in the local organization.

So I ask you who are grad students: What have your experiences in grad school been? Do you feel connected to undergrads? What organizations do you value? How might SWE serve you more effectively? What might you do to encourage and support your sisters in graduate studies? How do you ensure something you worked on will survive when you graduate?

Interesting Links:

Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics from the American Association of University Women.

SWE’s Graduate Student Blog.