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Female Grad Students Get WISE

Few would argue that the life of a graduate student is hectic. Between attending classes and lab meetings, carrying out research, and meeting teaching obligations, students are often left with precious little time to squeeze in some networking or efforts to find balance between their careers and their personal lives. Opportunities to network with and seek advice from other women are even fewer for women in disciplines that tend to be dominated by men, such as the physical and applied sciences.

It was this very problem that motivated one graduate student, Angela Tate, "to create a time and a place for women students to get together and worry out loud"--the Graduate Student Section of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Tate, a Ph.D. student in biomechanical engineering at Memorial University Newfoundland (MUN), is one of only four women Ph.D. students in the faculty of engineering. She discovered that her feelings of isolation were shared by others while attending a student roundtable at the 12th International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES) in Ottawa in July 2002. "I realized that I had a need to connect with other women grad students, and that there are likely other women asking the same questions as I am" about careers and the work-life balance. From that realisation, the idea to form a graduate student chapter of WISE Newfoundland and Labrador was born.

WISE Newfoundland and Labrador had its genesis in the late 1980s as part of a nonprofit, national volunteer organization dedicated to increasing the participation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers by improving awareness that these professions represent rewarding and exciting options for women. The WISE community focuses on mentoring, professional development, and networking opportunities for women in both academia and the private sector. Although some individual chapters across the country dismantled over time, others, such as the one at MUN and the University of Ottawa, strengthened. Because WISE had the infrastructure and supports in place already, the formation of a graduate student section closely linked to WISE made "perfect sense," says Tate.

"When Angela tabled the idea at a WISE executive meeting, we were thrilled with her proposal," says WISE vice president Caroline Koenig. "We realized that she would be bridging a gap. The shear number of participants she has drawn out to workshops and informal networking events clearly demonstrates that the need was there in the first place."

The objective of the group is straightforward, says Tate: to encourage women graduate students, who are interested in pursuing an academic career, "to take time to think about where we are going, ask questions we're afraid to ask, and discuss the many paths that a successful academic career can follow." Since the first announcements about the graduate student chapter were distributed in the MUN community, there has been a "surprisingly strong interest and a great deal of support from fellow students and interested faculty" from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, says Tate.

The Newfoundland and Labrador graduate student section kicked off its activities in February this year with "Building an Academic Career: A Workshop for Women Graduate Students in Science and Engineering," which was hosted by WISE and the NSERC/Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering at MUN. The workshop was based in part on the handbook Becoming Leaders: A Handbook for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology by Mary Williams and Carolyn Emerson. (For copies of the book, send an e-mail to Five women faculty from the university acted as facilitators for over 30 young graduate students and postdocs in the daylong workshop, and the attendance fee for the workshop included a WISE membership and the handbook. The event was such a success that the group, which currently numbers about 50 students and postdocs, is planning to hold a repeat later in the year.

In the meantime, ongoing activities of the group include regular meetings for tea and coffee that act as informal networking and Q&A sessions; pizza nights with faculty members, where students have the chance to ask faculty how they have managed their careers; and monthly meetings with guest academics. A recent discussion between senior and new graduate students on the topic of "What you should know before you start grad school" revealed a wide range of opinions and experiences pertinent to graduate research, such as who pays for photocopying, how to avoid being taken advantage of as a teaching assistant, and how to balance family and career.

Future events, as application deadlines approach, include information sessions on student loans, federal scholarships, and fellowships. Tate adds that because MUN has many international students, "it will also be important to share the different cultural perspectives on women in academia."

A future goal of the group is to set up a mentoring network involving women in faculty positions, graduate students, and even undergraduates. "I think that networking works best from the top down," says Tate, "Having mentors who have experience and have 'been there' can give you that extra bit of confidence or wisdom to be more successful." She adds that it is also important to learn how to be an effective mentor, if only for "the satisfaction of helping to guide someone else along a road to success."

For now, the graduate student chapter of WISE is based at Memorial University, but Tate hopes that other universities in Canada will look to their experience positively and start their own groups. Indeed, Tate would welcome hearing from graduate students at other universities. ... You can contact her at

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