Graduate Students as Collegiate Members

When many people think about how graduate students can be involved in SWE, they think of collegiate sections. Although graduate students can be professional members (as I discussed in August) the collegiate section is a great place for graduate students to get involved. Especially if a graduate student has never been involved in SWE before, the collegiate section may be her first experience with SWE, it is very important the all collegiate sections know that including graduate students should be one of their goals.

Let’s take this step by step.

Step 1: Making Contact with Graduate Students

Good News! Graduate students are a lot like undergraduate students; they like free food, they are interested in STEM and they are very busy.   Unfortunately they may also be very different. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Graduate students can feel disconnected from the campus culture, especially if they didn’t get their undergraduate degree at the same university. Many graduate students aren’t interested in the fun college traditions associated with your university. Don’t be surprised if you plan a fun event to watch the football game and no graduate students show up.
  • Graduate students often work “business hours”. If they are a RA or TA they may have to be on campus from 8:00 AM -5:00 PM (or much, much later) so when they are done, they want to go home! Some graduate students are parents so they aren’t going to stay late and eat pizza with you instead of making dinner for their children. Many groups have found that having lunch events attracts more graduate students.
  • Graduate students may not need help building a resume or dressing for an interview. They may have had a resume for 10+ years and have done hundreds of interviews.

So what do graduate students want? The best way to attract graduate students is to provide programming and services that they find valuable. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Many new women graduate students want to meet other women engineering graduate students. Women in graduate school in STEM are an even smaller minority than women in undergraduate programs. Simply by including the sentence “Graduate Students Welcome!” in your event announcements you will be making sure that graduate students know that you have thought about including them and they may assume that you already have some other graduate students attending. See if you can get one graduate student to be the “go-to” graduate student who will seek out the other graduate students and make friends.
  • Professional development. Graduate students might be interested in tips for writing NSF proposals, getting a postdoc position, preparing a tenure package, or negotiating salary and benefits. These topics may not appeal to undergraduate students but some may also be interested.
  • If you have a corporate recruiter coming to present, please make sure that they are prepared to answer questions about available positions for MS and PhD level candidates. Also, make sure that they are ready to answer the question “Do you sponsor employees for green cards?” Many graduate students are international students so if you only host companies that do not sponsor employees you are excluding them from that event.

f you are a graduate student and you are interested in SWE I would suggest these position with your section’s leadership.  The section may be very interested in having graduate student involvement but not know how to go about it.

Step 2: Getting Graduate Students Involved in Leadership

This is an easy step. Graduate students can be their own committee, the Graduate Committee, or act as Graduate Liaisons (if there isn’t quite enough participation for a whole committee) within the collegiate SWE section. The people in these positions would help plan events to be sure the needs of graduate students are being addressed. They may even plan some specific graduate targeted events.

Step 3: Graduate Group Structure

Many graduate groups work perfectly well as completely integrated parts of their collegiate section. However, if there is great graduate student involvement and the Graduate Committee is holding a lot of events then sometimes it feels like the graduate group is a separate group where undergraduates don’t attend the graduate events and graduate students don’t attend the regular events. Now what?

First, A University can’t have two SWE sections. The section is chartered to serve all students at the school. If the graduate students want to be part of SWE (and we want them to!), they will have to maintain a strong (and even subordinate) connection to the collegiate section. Ideally, there will be no need for any autonomy for graduate students.

However, graduate students may be able to be a separate university recognized organization. They can go through the process to be recognized as a graduate specific organization in the eyes of the university only. This may be helpful to get graduate student specific funding from within the university. They would still have to file the section report with the SWE collegiate section and all SWE correspondence would be through the official collegiate section.

A more active and autonomous graduate group may be beneficial to both undergraduate and graduate SWE members. When discussing graduate autonomy these are some points that both undergraduate and graduate students should keep in mind.

  • Graduate involvement is a priority for SWE right now so graduate specific events are very important.
  • Section leadership (elected and appointed positions) can and should be a mix of all student degree levels – 1st year thru postdoc
  • Graduate students and undergraduates often have different needs (as referenced above) when it comes to professional development so a semi-autonomous group may mean that both groups are better served.
  • There may also be some funding sources that a graduate group could use that an organization that is not specifically for graduate students may not be able to use and likewise, some funding cannot be used for graduate students.

A Note on Conflict:

More than one blossoming graduate group has encountered some conflict with their collegiate section leadership. This is often due to misunderstandings of what the grad group really wants. When dealing with collegiate section leadership please be sure to emphasize the following:

  • A lack of graduate specific programming is not going to result in more graduate participation in other types of programming- it will result in less graduate student involvement.
  • A Grad SWE group will always be a subordinate part of the University SWE Section.
  • Grad SWE may be able to provide mentors for an undergraduate mentorship program.
  • A “Should I go to Grad School?” presentation can be planned every year.
  • Grad students may be able to act as University “chaperones” for some off campus events.
  • Grad SWE members may be able to find their own separate funding and therefore not have to be budgeted for by the SWE section.

The decision to create a semi-autonomous graduate group should be made jointly by the collegiate section and graduate leaders and advisors. It shouldn’t be seen as a break, but as a “re-branding” to attract greater participation.

There is no one structure for a Grad SWE group within collegiate sections so I would encourage graduate students to figure it what works for them as part of the collegiate section leadership.


One thought on “Graduate Students as Collegiate Members

  1. Pingback: Tips for starting a Grad SWE group | Society of Women Engineers - Graduate Community

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