CRA-DMP Evaluation Report #1

The Students' Point of View: Issues Involved in Participating in the DMP

IV. The multi-dimensional role of the mentor

In this section we will discuss the students' view of the role of the mentor in the program. The mentor played a critical role both in facilitating a positive experience for the students during their participation in the program as well as through acting as a role model and a professional resource.

IV.A. Within the framework of the program: Orienting and helping students in their research project

IV.A.1. Defining the working relationship

When students first arrived at their mentor's university, they expected the mentor to clearly delineate her expectations for them. This included defining when and how often they would meet, what was expected of them in these meetings, as well as letting the students know the times at which the mentor would be available for questions (outside of the regular meetings). If the student worked with graduate students, they also wanted a clear delineation of their working relationship.

Most students expressed that they knew what their mentor expected of them and were able to function within that framework. However, a few students felt unclear about the protocol for interacting with their mentor or didn't feel that they had an understanding of their mentor's expectations. In the following interview excerpts the students discussed their concerns and frustrations about these issues.

I mean she was busy, just really, she would shut her door all day like she wanted us to leave her alone. And [someone else] would insist on knocking on her door and bothering her. And I really thought to myself, "[This person] is pushing it." (laughs) You know what I mean? I mean I really thought that. I didn't know that that's what she wanted. And I mean, I blame her for not telling me that.
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I: What were the most negative aspects of the program for you?

R: Being ignored. I wasn't real happy with that. I don't do well with being ignored anyway. And I felt like there were false pretenses.

I: Set forth by whom?

R: Set forth more by the lack of communication or understanding.

I: What were the false pretenses? R: Mentoring. The fact that I truly believed that she would spend more time with me.

Other students commented that they were unsure what kind of behavior was acceptable when dealing with graduate students. The following student's comments reflect the fact that it was unclear to her as to what type of relationship she was to have with graduate students.

One incident I had was with the grad student who's helping me with the coding. The professor told me to go see him about his code and go ask him questions. Well, I went over and spent about 40 minutes with him and felt real guilty about that and then left. Then the professor asked me how it went and I told him, "Well, I went over and spent 40 minutes with him." And he said, "Well, I thought you were going to spend the whole afternoon with him." And it never ever dawned on me that I could take up that much of somebody's time. When he said go ask him some questions, I just thought, "Okay. Well, I'll spend maybe half an hour, or hour with him," 'cause I figured he's got work to do. I guess, I ran into little problems like that of just not really knowing how things worked and how to act.

Evaluator Point of View

Most students viewed their mentor as an authority figure and were uncomfortable, at least initially, with approaching her with questions and concerns. A number of these students lacked confidence about their skills and abilities, and were reluctant to initiate interactions and discussions with the mentor. As a result, the students placed the responsibility on the mentor for defining the nature and frequency of interactions during the program. Thus, the mentor can reduce her student's anxiety about their interactions, both professional and social, by clearly stating her expectations and setting up a protocol for interactions.

IV.A.2. "Making time" for the students

Many of the students that we interviewed emphasized that an important part of the program was their interaction with their mentor. These students expected their mentor to be available to address their questions about their project and discuss details of a career in CS&E.

Most students stated that their mentor was available throughout the program to meet with them and address their questions. A few students expressed that their mentor either was not available or was not a good resource. When students felt that they didn't have much contact with their mentor, they were disappointed with the program and questioned the value of the mentoring aspect of the program.

R: I think that perhaps the professor I'm working with wasn't the best choice...

I: Why is that?

R: She's really busy, she doesn't have very much time for me at all. Like weeks go by without me seeing her during more than, like we have a weekly luncheon. I'm actually working much more directly with this graduate student. Like if I have a questions, problems with the program, I ask him because it's his program. He knows, [and] he can help me out much more quickly, than my mentor. So that's kind of a little disappointing, I don't really know how much of a mentor she is being to me- ... I mean she's kind of left it that if I have questions I can come to her, but it just seems pointless when I have a question about the project to go to her, because she's going to say, "Well, I don't really know the details. Why don't you go ask him?"

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I: So from the whole definition of mentor you assumed that she would perform certain duties?

R: Yeah, be around more, make sure that I wasn't spending all of my nights at home wondering what I was supposed to be doing.

I: HmmMmm. And that didn't happen?

R: That didn't happen at all. As far as she was concerned the more that I stayed out of her life the better.

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I: And then what happened? Did you work with her on a project?

R: No, we worked with the grad students. She's real busy. I hardly ever saw [my mentor]. I had a problem with that, I did. I was real unhappy with that because, I mean she was supposed to be my mentor, and you know what I mean. I wanted to get to know her.

In fact, when students perceived their mentor as too busy to meet with them, many felt as if their presence, rather than being helpful, was more of a distraction.

R: So I didn't have a lot of direct contact with her concerning this project. We would have weekly meetings where we would tell her and the graduate students what we had done during the week. And that was about the only time we interacted with her with regards to the project anyway.

I: How did you feel about that?

R: It was a little disappointing. And I understand she's busy, but I kind of felt like I was in the way, more than being a help to them all.

Evaluator Point of View

This section demonstrates the value that students placed on their interactions with the mentor. The students expected the mentor to provide guidance about their project and about their career decisions. If the mentor is only available to them through weekly group research meetings, the student is apt to become disappointed with their working relationship. Thus, it is important that the mentor set aside time to spend alone with the student so that these issues and questions can be addressed.

IV.A.3. Designing and implementing a project: Giving students freedom within limits

For most students in the DMP, their project was their first experience with research. Through our interviews, we came to understand that while students wanted their project to allow for their intellectual creativity and interests, they also felt they needed some structure and guidance from the mentor.

IV.A.3.a. Choice within structure: Students wanted the mentor to prepare a project or a series of projects

Many students entered the DMP lacking a sense of their interests in CS&E and of how to conduct research in the field. As a result they needed the mentor to frame a project or series of projects for them which would provide an overall structure for their research. Yet within this framework students wanted to have some input in helping to define their project as well as a choice in how they would proceed in conducting their research project.

I: Who decided what you would work on?

R: Actually, she gave me choices so I guess it's hard to say. I kind of said, "What do you think if I do this?" And she said, "Okay." It was like fifty-fifty. Sometimes I came up with the idea. Sometimes she would suggest the idea and I said, "Yes." So, in the last project she gave me a few things to choose from and I chose what I chose. So, I made a choice. So, I don't know. Kind of fifty-fifty. It worked out fine. I mean, she would never push anything on me or anything like that.

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R: Yeah, like if there was several things that were available, [my graduate student advisor] would be "Well, like well, what do you want to do." which was good.

I: You liked that, having that freedom?

R: Yeah, yeah. Because then I wouldn't have to do the stuff that was like "Yuck, I don't want to do it." (laughs) I got to do more fun stuff.

IV.A.3.b. Students wanted structure and guidance in their research

Students expressed that they needed structure and guidance as they conducted research during the program. Many students expressed that they preferred that their mentor provide overall guidance and direction without being involved in the day-to-day details. In the following quotes, students described the nature of the guidance from the mentor that was helpful to them in their research.

She gave me the project and basically told me the eventual goal of what I wanted to accomplish. And then, she basically let me start. And then I'd just come to her with questions. And if I asked her a question, she not only would answer that question, but kind of give me more advice about what I needed to do or say, "Oh this is something that you left out. You need to do this too." So she answered the questions I asked, basically, but she didn't try to [take over the project]. I mean she guided me a little bit, because at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing. But it wasn't a very dominating role that she had.

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R: I like [my project]. It's definitely interesting. It's something I've never done before. [My mentor] said, "Okay, I know nothing about it, but it looks okay and it might be a good idea. I think it will work, so why don't you try it?" And she gave me the book, and I sat down. She generally told me what she wanted. I mean, we're in constant contact because my little cubicle is a whole 25 feet from her office. It works out very well.

I: How often do you talk to her -- several times throughout the day?

R: It depends on what I'm doing. If I'm really, really stuck, 'cause there've been a couple times where I haven't talked to her about the project for a couple days, and then I'll come in and show her, "This is what I did, what needs to be different." 'Cause the way I'm programming is basically trial and error, 'cause I've never used the language and neither has she. It makes it interesting - we're like the blind leading the blind.

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I: What did [your mentor] do in the mentoring program?

R: She did a lot. She basically sort of steered us or not really steered, but helped us get started in a big way. I mean she said "Well, you guys can choose whatever you want. Or if you have no idea, here are four ideas, you know. And you can pick one of these if you want." [The other DMP student] and I were like "Hmm, OK." (laughs) And so she made sure that like we met with [another person on the research team] and she was like, "You know, it's a really good idea if you guys give talks." And so she didn't really sit down there and do the programming or anything, she just sort of directed us and sort of helped us do research. And definitely I mean, she gave us reading assignments and pointed us in that direction of reading, told us what papers she thought would be useful, and stuff like that.

When students worked without structure and guidance, they expressed that they felt lost and without direction. The following student expressed that because she had "too much" freedom on the project, she wasn't sure what was important for her to concentrate on.

R: I think one of the things that I'm most disappointed in about the program that was just in organizing it they were pretty loose in what they wanted me to do at the beginning. Which was cool 'cause it gave me room to figure out what I was doing. But they had a large code that I was working with and they just sort of let me play around and finally I was like, "Well, can I look at that?" So once I did that things started going, but it didn't happen till almost halfway through the project and I think that slowed me down a lot.

I: They didn't give you a clear project at all?

R: Well, yes it was a clear project. But there were several things surrounding it and basically it was a very independent thing for me. Which I liked a lot and worked a lot and if I ever had questions they were more than willing to do anything and everything to help...But they didn't say, "Okay, it's gonna have to be this design, this whatever." I was pretty much set to design it how I wanted....I played with a lot of stuff and I did a lot of other stuff but I didn't know exactly how it related 'cause I didn't know exactly what I needed, you know.

One student expressed frustration and disappointment that she received almost no guidance and struggled for weeks attempting to understand how to approach her project. As a result this student stated that she was unable to complete her project.

R: I never really did find out [what my project was]. I mean, I had a written description, but nobody ever told me how to do it. And the last three weeks I attached myself to some graduate students and wrote a help module for them, so by then, by the last three weeks I would come in, program for a few hours, go to lunch, program for some more, meet with people to discuss what I was programming. That was a lot more what I thought it would be, overall, but I wasn't doing the project that she wanted me to. In fact, I don't know what she wanted me to do.

I: So she never, she wrote it out but didn't discuss it with you?

R: Yeah, and I always got the idea that it would just become suddenly apparent to me and it never did, and every time I tried to talk to her about it she would either say, "Well, you're doing fine for now, and we'll talk about it when you start something new," but I didn't know what I was doing for now.

Evaluator Point of View

This section demonstrates the importance of the mentor achieving a balance between providing guidance and allowing the student independence in directing the work on her own project. Most students did not have the capacity to independently conduct research and therefore needed a structured project and overall guidance.

IV.B. Beyond the framework of the program: The mentor as role model and professional resource

IV.B.1. Orienting students about the field of CS&E

Some students discussed the value of having someone prepared and available to answer their questions and orient them about a career in CS&E. They looked upon their mentor as a reliable resource to address their questions about graduate school, research and academic life.

I mean that was just nice to have someone who expected the questions that you were going to ask you know, about grad school or about research, or about careers or whatever. So I mean she was really helpful both directing our research and talking to us about whatever we wanted to talk about GRE's or whatever.
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I: Now you're about three weeks into it. What is turning [out to be valuable to you]?

R: It's the mentor thing, because I can go and ask her anything. And it's great to be able to do that because she's done it and she's been through grad school and she's done this and she's searched through all them and she's done the job hunt. I mean, she's been through all of it. So if I have a question about it I can ask her, and she'll be able to answer.

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I: What were the most positive aspects of the program for you?

R: Having a mentor who was female and who was sort of -- by the very nature of the program it sort of made it okay to ask questions like, "Have you encountered sexism?" All that kind of stuff. And also, "What's the process for entering grad school, for going for a PhD." I mean, they don't explain to you as an undergrad, because most undergrads don't go to grad school I guess, but they don't say, "You've got to write a thesis. This class in this university is required." That kind of thing.

Many students commented that their mentor introduced them to the culture of academia by giving them professional advice and direction.

R: I talked to her a couple times about grad school and what it's like to be a grad student or what it's like a professor or how you get in or explain the whole grant getting process, and that kind of thing.

I: You asked her to explain that?

R: Yeah. We had quite a few talks on the whole, how the research world works, stuff.

I: Was that important to you?

R: It was very helpful. I mean, I know a heck of a lot more about it now than I did then.

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Actually, I mostly talked to [my mentor] trying to figure out what college to go to for grad school. She was firmly encouraging me to go to the one with the best name that I could get into, just because then you can get a job at a place with a better name and you have more choices.

IV.B.2. "Modeling" life in the field

Although students commented that they could look to their male professors as modeling the faculty role, most felt that women had a unique experience as CS&E faculty. Since most student participants had little or no prior direct contact with a female faculty member, many looked to their mentor as a role model of what they might accomplish and experience in a career in CS&E. By observing and interacting with their mentor over the ten week period, many students were able to develop a clearer picture of the experience of women in CS&E.

IV.B.2.a. Students identified with, and learned from, their mentor's experience in CS&E

Almost all students emphasized that their interaction with a female faculty member in the DMP was important to them because they could discuss with her experiences particular to being female in the field of CS&E. Many described that they were able to identify with the mentor and relate to her experiences as a female in CS&E.

Yeah, I think maybe we've both been maybe up against the same things, we can sort of relate to each others' situation.
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I: Was having a female mentor important to you?

R: Not important, but I definitely think it was helpful just because guys and girls have different perspectives of things. It's just that she's already been through it all, you know? Like she went through undergrad, she went through grad, she went through not having a ton of girls in her class, you know? It's just nice that someone else could relate to what I was going through, type of thing.

In addition, almost all students felt that their mentor provided a more accurate picture of the kinds of issues that they, as females, will face in CS&E.

I think it's good [that the mentors are female]. Yeah. It definitely helps. I mean I have other professors where I am that are interested in the same things that I'm interested in. But they are men and I'm not trying to be sexist or anything but I just can't talk to them the same way I can talk to my mentor. And we cannot address the same issues. They didn't have the same problems a woman is going to have when going to graduate school or getting a job, and so the experience of a woman, a woman mentor, gives me, is more closely to what I'm going to be experiencing.
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R: Why do I think all the mentors were women? I think it was to give us a perspective from a female perspective. I don't know. Maybe I would have gotten along just as well with the male mentor. I don't know. I mean, I've never had any problems with my male professors, I just think I could get a more accurate view of how I was going to go through life through a female mentor's experience. Does that make sense?

I: Meaning that you'll have similar experiences?

R: Right, and we had similar concerns. Like, especially if I want to have children, that's something most males don't consider as necessarily their responsibility, and it was something I knew if I wanted to have kids some day I had to approach and address. And I felt comfortable talking with her about that, and I don't think a male mentor I would have felt comfortable talking to that about.

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I think one of the other things I was worried about was grad school because if I think they're few women in my classes now, it's going to be even worse in graduate school because even a smaller percentage of women. And I don't know. I guess it was just good to talk to a woman who's been there, been through graduate school as a woman, and just can give me encouragement that it's not going to be, I don't know, terrible. I'm not going to feel like a Martian. (laughs)
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You can talk more about personal experiences and stuff like that with women profs. And it is important to understand how their whole academic life plays in with their family. Just sort of the way they grew up and things like that. Because it is different, because for men it is very accepted, that ... if you want to go off and get your Ph.D. and blah-blah-blah, you know, that's fine, whatever. But, you hang out by yourself, it just extends your bachelorhood longer, you get married at the end or whatever. For women, I mean, it's not so much established. So you learn that, "Yeah this is what I did, and this is how it goes, and it all worked out, and it's okay."

IV.B.2.b. Students realized that a woman could be successful and respected in CS&E

By observing and working closely with female faculty member, students were able to view her as a role model for what they could accomplish in their professional life. Although the students were aware that women could succeed in CS&E, they had little or no contact with any female faculty prior to the DMP. For many students, this interaction with their female mentor provided an example of what type of woman can succeed in CS&E and, in many cases, encouragement that they too could succeed in the field.

Actually, after the program I was much more gung ho [about graduate school]. I wanted to be just like [my mentor]. I still like the idea. Actually, I'm taking a course from her right now. I think it's a really neat course, and it's sort of reminding me that there is stuff that I like. It's sort of making me think about grad school a second time, in computer science. I think [my mentor] is fantastic. She really makes me believe that you could do something neat with a career in computer science in the university.
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I: OK. Why do you think all the mentors were women?

R: Ahm, well I think ahm, if the purpose of the program is to encourage females to continue on it helps to see a female that actually has continued on and been very successful. Ahm, if you see another male you see them all over the place and I think seeing that, yeah there is a female that has made it and it can be done and I think that's just- I think that's just encouraging.

I: Did it have an effect on you?

R: Yeah it did. [My mentor] impressed me a lot and it was helpful to see her having been so successful. I think I would've come away with a lot of the same feelings with a male mentor but if I had to make a choice I would have chosen a female mentor.

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But it seemed worthwhile to me [that the DMP was only offered to women]. I didn't really get any close relationships with any female professors otherwise. I do know that women can do it. I never had any trouble with self-esteem or sexism that way, but it still seems useful to me to see that, yes, there indeed really was this female professor that I got to work with that's very successful.

IV.B.2.c. Students realized that women can have a successful career and outside interests

Many students commented that prior to participating in the DMP, they were worried about being able to balance a career in CS&E with other interests, namely having a family. Many students feared that an academic career in CS&E would be too time intensive to be able to focus on other interests. Most students looked to their mentor as an accurate role model of whether it was possible to be successful in CS&E and have outside interests. In this section, we will discuss student reactions to their mentor's lifestyle.

Many students looked to their mentor as someone who could accurately model how to balance family and career. For some students, this was an important issue when considering an academic career in CS&E and they reacted positively to seeing their mentor strike this balance.

R: [Working with a female mentor] made it seem really possible to work and to have a family. I think computer science has a tendency of sort of swallowing up any hours you'll give to it. She put really some boundaries on when she was working and when she stopped working. And that was really good to see. To see that maybe not every Thursday at five o'clock she went home, but she would say "OK, I've done enough today. I need to go home and spend some time with my family. Stuff like that."

I: Was that something you might have been worried about?

R: I was definitely worried about it. (laughs) Having a family is very important to me. I mean even our faculty members [in CS&E] are here more than any other faculty in the entire college. So I wanted to see that it was possible that you could balance it.

I: Did this affect how you viewed graduate school then, or how you viewed going into Computer Science?

R: Well, yeah. It made it more attractive, definitely. To see a successful woman managing career and family.

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I: Why do you think all the mentors are women?

R: Well, it seems that the goal of the program was to show women engineers that there were other women in the field that were enjoying what they were doing. And it was really refreshing to see that. And it was nice to see that a woman could make it and be very respected doing what she was doing. I think that was good. I think that's a good thing. I think it was a very good thing that it was a female because it gave me a chance to see that a female could get all the way to the top, sort of a tenure position, really well respected, very good researcher, and also still have a life, have a family and other things that she likes.

I: Was this something that you had worried about?

R: I was kind of worried that any job that I might get would ask so much of me that I wouldn't be able to have any other dedications to anything. Yeah, so that was something I did worry about, was that a job would ask too much of me. I saw that it could ask a lot of you, but you could still have a lot to give to other things as well.

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R: Yeah, so [my DMP mentor has] really been a great influence. She has three kids now and it's just so interesting to see someone -- I mean I don't have any real role models that I've ever looked up to. Just to see that she's gone though college and gotten her PhD and now is teaching and has kids. It's interesting to be able to see that first hand...

I: How does that influence you? Does it influence you in what you can do?

R: Yeah I think it did. It just made me think that you really can do any kind of thing. I mean just put your mind to it. Which I think a whole part of getting your PhD is, I mean it's a long haul but if you want it bad enough I think you can do it. I might be a little bit too optimistic, I don't know.

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