When Research & Representation Matter

by drfelder

Black Women Engineers

Last month, August 18-20  Maryland’s AGEP PROMISE held its annual Summer Success Institute geared to supporting and celebrating graduate students pursuing degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).  While the institute primarily focuses on supporting students attending doctoral programs in the state of Maryland by covering Institute expenses like registration, housing, and food at cost other participants (including:  undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, administrators, policymakers and key institutional stakeholders) came together to discuss strategies for supporting historically marginalized doctoral students in STEM fields.  Strategies focused on academic and psycho-social issues and challenges students of color often face in navigating their doctoral programs.   Some sessions were gender-specific including The Institute’s Sisters in the Dissertation House Friday night event themed after add link to book here where women of color expressed their concerns about managing their identities as emerging scholars.  One of the goals in this session is to identify ways STEM doctoral students can strike a balance between their research and the ways they represent it in their daily walks as emerging scholars.

Discipline-specific discussions centered on academic traditions found in fields like chemistry, biology, and engineering; the learning of essential practices and processes to support doctoral students in building their research agendas.  Dialogue about the psychosocial issues addressed historical challenges like isolation, chilly academic climates, lack of faculty support, and the lack of institutional initiatives supporting racial and cultural awareness.  For women participating in the session it is especially meaningful to:   collectively embrace identities, discuss the pressures associated with being a woman within STEM fields, and to celebrate professional and personal triumphs (and beyond through year-long mentorship activities).  There is a long history of challenges associated with academic success and degree attainment as illustrated in the historical trends of STEM participation among historically marginalized groups.  Each STEM field holds its own unique history and disciplinary nuances shaping the doctoral process; illuminating areas for deeper analysis and understanding regarding the student experience.

According to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates 2014 report highlighting trends of completion from 1994 to 2014, the number of women receiving doctorates has grown over the past two decades in all broad fields of study. The largest increase in the representation of women occurred in life sciences, where the share of female doctorate recipients increased by 14 percentage points from 1994 to 2014. Although women earned only 23% of the 2014 engineering doctorates, this represented a large advance (12 percentage points) over 1994.

As a participant-observer and Faculty Mentor for the Institute, it was clear that women participating in the dissertation session were familiar with what it meant to experience doctoral study within the context of this underrepresentation.  And, observing this made it all the more clear why programmatic efforts like Maryland’s PROMISE Summer Success Institute are important to sustain discipline-specific support for historically marginalized graduate students.  Participation in these events allow students to immerse themselves in their scholarship and practice in ways that are culturally affirming and familiar.  These kinds of activities not only reinforce a connection to their disciplines but also to themselves and communities.

It’s important to remember that supporting historically marginalized doctoral students is a national investment in the future leadership of our country.  And, this support is a commitment to transforming academic spaces that have excluded and/or minimized racial and cultural representation.   There is much work to be done to further understand the experiences of students who struggle with representing their research interests.  While the PROMISE Summer Success Institute is working to demonstrate this support, there is great potential for other institutional-level models in our country to contribute to this transformation in our graduate education system.