The majority of master’s and doctoral students in the United States are women, but women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, including computer and information sciences. According to the most recent study by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), 57 percent of students who began pursuing master’s and doctoral education in the United States in fall 2015 were women. Among persons of color, the representation of women is robust: sixty-nine percent of Black/African American, 64 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native, 63 percent of Hispanic/Latino, and 60 percent of Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander who began their master’s and doctoral education in fall 2015 were women. Similarly, 58 percent of master’s degrees and 52 percent of doctoral degrees during the 2014-15 academic year were conferred to women. However, in STEM fields, including computer and information sciences, women still fall behind men by a wide margin.
According to another CGS report, 31 percent of first-time graduate enrollment in computer and information sciences and 29 percent of the total graduate enrollment in fall 2015 were women. Of the doctorate and master’s degrees conferred in computer and information sciences, 29 percent were conferred to women between the 2014-15 academic year. Although women’s representation in computer and information sciences is above that of most engineering fields, the field has one of the lowest representations of women among other STEM fields. However, there is some good news: enrollments for women has grown steadily in computer and information sciences in recent years, and the rate of growth is outpacing that of men. Between 2005 and 2015, the fall first-time enrollment of women in computer and information sciences increased, on average, by 21 percent annually, while the average annual rate of growth for men was 13 percent.
This rather robust growth in first-time enrollment of women has not, however, translated into equally strong increases in the number of computer and information sciences graduate degrees conferred to women. Between academic year 2004-05 and 2014-15, the number of computer and information sciences master’s degrees conferred to women grew, on average, 7 percent annually, compared to the average annual rate of growth of 5 percent for men; and for doctoral degrees, both men and women increased their numbers, on average, by 6 percent annually. There are some delayed effects in how changes in first-time enrollments translate into changes in degrees conferred over time. Nevertheless, this stark difference between rates of growth in women’s first-time enrollment and degrees conferred suggests that in order to expand the educational pipelines for women in computer and information sciences, more efforts that focus on retention—and not just recruitment—may be a key factor.
This observation is not surprising. Nor is it unique to computer and information sciences alone. CGS’s study on completion and attrition of underrepresented minority (URM) students in STEM doctoral fields also offered a similar conclusion. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF grant number 1138814), this study examined the enrollment data of all URM doctoral students in STEM fields at 21 U.S. doctoral-granting institutions between 1992 and 2012, in addition to collecting data about current URM STEM doctoral students through a survey and focus groups. A CGS report based on this project, Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion (DIMAC), found that most diversity and inclusion initiatives in STEM doctoral education focus on recruitment and early phases of doctoral studies. In fact, very few examples of formal programs and interventions focusing on students during their post-enrollment were found at the 21 institutions that were part of this project.
Why is this so critical? The CGS study found that one-half of URM STEM doctoral students who left their graduate studies without a doctorate did so after their second year in their programs. This means that one-half of doctoral attrition likely occurs after students have completed their coursework and presumably moved on to the dissertation phase, which requires significant investments in time and effort on the part of both students and graduate programs. It only makes sense to provide the support these students need in the late stages of their doctoral studies to cross the finish line. The latter stage of doctoral studies, the CGS study also found, is the time more students feel emotionally and physically stressed, as well as isolated in their education pursuits. Providing semi-structured experiences for doctoral students in their dissertation phases may help alleviate some of these stresses. Dissertation writing groups and other forms of peer social interactions are becoming increasingly popular approaches to foster a sense of belonging and community for doctoral candidates while also encouraging them to earn their degrees in a timely manner.
Another area of promising practices in increasing participation in the advanced STEM workforce is professional development and career preparation. In the DIMAC report, 70 percent of URM students cited professional and career guidance as a factor that affected their ability to persist in STEM doctoral studies to a great or moderate extent, which is a greater share than effects attributed to advisors or faculty support. Helping students articulate their chosen career paths from a wide range of STEM professions—both in the professoriate and industry—may encourage progress and completion of their doctorates. Ninety-four percent of URM STEM students in the CGS study cited motivation and determination as a factor that affected their ability to persist to a greater or moderate extent. Being able to articulate one’s goals for earning a doctorate—helping students propel themselves into their desired career paths being one of them—is likely a key driver for the needed motivation and determination to complete their doctoral studies.
This is an area where graduate programs and the industry can work closely together. In fact, another recent CGS study, which focused on career preparation in STEM graduate education, called for a greater alignment and coordination of professional development experiences for advanced STEM graduate students. Professional development efforts that help students begin their careers have a potential to improve retention and degree completion. The study also underscores the importance of faculty mentorship in professional development. A more diverse student body may lead to a more diverse range of career interests, as a recent study suggests that women and URM in some STEM fields tend to prefer careers outside of the professoriate. Thus, it is important that faculty members and graduate programs encourage and guide students into the multitude of career pathways beyond the doctorates.
With graduate enrollment increasing for women in computer and information sciences, the entry point for the field’s educational pipeline is more robust than ever. Yet, it appears that the challenge remains for computer and information sciences graduate programs—and for other STEM fields—to increase retention and completion of degrees. In order to expand the pipeline, our efforts must focus on both recruitment of potential talents and support throughout graduate studies that leads to desired career outcomes. The CGS study on URM STEM doctoral completion suggests that interventions in latter stages of doctoral programs, such as structured support for doctoral dissertation, as well as professional development programs may be a key in expanding the pathways to the advanced STEM workforce, including in computer and information sciences, for women and persons of color.
About the Authors
Suzanne T. Ortega is president of the Council of Graduate Schools, the only national organization in the United States that is dedicated solely to the advancement of graduate education and research. She is also principal investigator for the Completion and Attrition in AGEP and non-AGEP Institutions project (National Science Foundation grant number 1138814).
Hironao Okahana is assistant vice president, Research & Policy Analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools, where he serves as co-principal investigator for the Completion and Attrition in AGEP and non-AGEP Institutions project. He is also an adjunct faculty member for the higher education program at George Mason University.