Sources of Mentorship

The "Life as a Female Grad Student" online survey that we conducted asked respondents to rank the following groups in order of frequency turned to for mentorship: female professors, male professors, female staff, male staff, female graduate student, male graduate student. Note that staff includes postdocs, the department secretary, etc.

We found that the most frequently groups turned to for mentorship are (in order): female grad students, male professors, and female professors. The least frequently turned to groups are: male grad students and male staff.

The groups most available to survey respondents included female grad students and male professors. The least available included male grad students and male staff.

The groups that the survey respondents would prefer to turn to, given equal availability, include female professors, male professors, and female grad students. The least preferred groups included male grad students and male staff.

Male grad students and male staff are the least frequently chosen groups across all three questions. The fact that they are least available implies that they are not frequently turned to for mentorship. However, given the high numbers of male grad students compared to female grad students in typical CS departments, this cannot be the only reason. Perhaps the female respondents feel more comfortable consulting other female grad students, rather than male grad students or male staff. The next topic, female role models, may help to clarify this.

Female Role Models

The online survey asked respondents to answer questions on how they interact with female role models, including female professors or advisors.

We found that 36% of respondents have a female role model in their field of study and that nearly all of them interact with this person on a regular basis. We also found that 69% of respondents have had a female professor or advisor in their field of study.

Frequently chosen female role models include (in no particular order) a mother, a previous or current advisor, a fellow or older graduate student, or a previous class professor. Respondents interact with their female role models in many different ways, including at conferences, by email, in the hallway, in classes, working together on projects, face to face meetings, by phone, or regularly as a roommate or officemate. However, not all respondents interact with their female role models. One interesting comment noted that "[I] dare not to talk to her. She is so busy and serious."

There were conflicting survey responses that compared male and female professors. Many comments noted that female professors/advisors can be more harsh, defensive, controlling, and/or competitive than male professors/advisors. Yet, other comments noted that both male professors and female professors could inspire them about engineering equally. Many noted that the gender of the professor does not make a difference and that both genders were equally bad or good. One respondent noted that "personality plays the major role." However, some students mentioned that that they would feel more comfortable discussing emotional issues or stumbling blocks with a female professor. Others noted that female professors provided good role models of how to manage family and work. These comments perhaps explain the tendency to consult other female grad students, as discussed in the section on sources of mentorship.

In general, role models provide a positive example of success in school, work, and life. Below is a sampling of how female role models affect the outlook of respondents.

  • "[She] helped get me excited about research."
  • "She has been a positive influence on me, simply proving that if you work hard and stick to your goals, you can accomplish just about anything."
  • "She made me feel that it was worth continuing when I felt like quitting."
  • "Sometimes I'd just like to know how they get through the hurdles to reach their goals."
  • "I often ask questions about how to present work. How to interact with people, how to get the next job etc."
  • "Yes, she definitely believed in me when I was having difficulties."
  • "If it was okay for her to [do] some thing, I could probably do it too. I was less hesitant when she was around."
  • "She made me believe it's possible to get a MSc."
  • "I want to be as professional as her in the future."
  • "My advisor has helped me develop a lot of confidence in graduate school."