2024 CRA-WP Grad Cohort for Women Report

Fourth-year grad student attends grad-school-meta-event to gain wisdom and make friends.
May 13, 2024

On April 11-13th, I attended CRA-WP's Grad Cohort Workshop for Women, co-located with the Grad Cohort Workshop for IDEALS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Leadership Skills). This was a great opportunity to meet wonderful computing researchers in both academia and industry. Most importantly, this was a chance to talk with researchers outside my graduate program about meta-grad-school topics, such as soft skills. (Usually when you meet researchers outside of your program, it's at a technical conference, and you talk about cool research)

If you are a grad student (MS or PhD) looking for opportunities to get grad school advice and meet cool computing researchers (grad students, faculty, industry researchers) outside of your sub-field of computing-related research, this is a great one! I hope this post encourages you to apply to the next cycle of either the Grad Cohort for Women or the Grad Cohort for IDEALS :)

What is the CRA-WP Grad Cohort for Women?

The CRA-WP is a committee within the CRA (Computing Research Association) that aims to increase participation in computing research from underrepresented populations. You can read more about their goals here.

The Grad Cohort for Women is a 2-3 day workshop that focuses on grad school survival skills, especially how to navigate difficult spaces as a woman in CS. There are panel talks, where researchers share their experiences and perspectives on publishing papers, work-life balance, navigating difficult interactions, figuring out career paths, internship search, prepping your candidacy exam, and many more. There are also 1-1 short advising sessions where you can meet with senior researchers to ask for general advice, or have them take a look at your Resume/CV. And of course, there are also plenty of opportunities for informal discussions through lunches/dinners/other social events. Both researchers in academia and industry attend, so that you can gain perspectives from both ends of the spectrum.

Why did I apply/attend?

I first heard about the workshop from Professor Vasanta Chaganti, one of my wonderful mentors at Swarthmore. Last summer, as I was going through an especially tough time in my PhD, Vasanta recommended me to join groups such as the CRA-WP. She emphasized the importance of having a strong academic support system, and getting advice from many different people. These points were very compelling to me.

A couple of months after hearing about CRA-WP, I made a big switch in my research directions. I already felt that attending the workshop and getting advice would be really helpful... But now I felt even more of a need to gain wisdom from senior researchers and expand my support group, so I can succeed at my new research.

Lastly, I thought it'll be good to leave the Ithaca bubble for a couple of days. As much as I love all the nature in Ithaca and my friends, I haven't travelled long distance in a long while. Also, it's often said that travelling for conferences is one of the biggest perks of being an academic :)

What was it like?

The workshop spanned across three days. The first day had a welcome reception, the second day was the main event, and the third day was half talks and half 1-1 meetings. The organizers posted a specific schedule on the event website, which can still be accessed.

I firmly believe that the gems hiding in every conference are the 1-1, or small group interactions. To that end, I definitely met my goal of meeting a lot of wonderful people! From assigning me a hotel roommate and encouraging people to rideshare from the airport, to setting up discussion groups during lunch, the workshop gave me plenty of opportunities to meet new people. Surprisingly, I found a mix between early- and late-stage graduate students within the attendees (note: MS students are also eligible for this workshop. If you're an MS student looking to decide whether to continue to a PhD, this workshop may be helpful since you can hear about current PhD students' experiences). Given the nature of the workshop, I really thought that most of the attendees would be early-stage PhD students, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Even more surprisingly, the majority of people that I met were those that I don't think I would've met otherwise. Most of the folks were working on research outside of my areas, as I only met a handful of researchers working in Programming Languages, Software Engineering, or Computer Architecture. While it may have been nice to meet more people to have technical discussions with, I think the purpose of the workshop was more to have more general conversations about research/grad school life. Plus, there are often more opportunities to meet people who work on your area of research, by way of technical conferences. As an aside, LinkedIn's (maybe new) QR-code functionality made it extremely easy to connect with people :)

I also want to highlight the talks, which were given by professors and experienced researchers in industry, and touched on many common grad school themes: finding research topics, work-life balance, submitting papers, and more. I really appreciated the panel on "Strategies for Human-Human Interaction" by Cynthia Phillips, Kathryn McKinley, Joyce Croft, and Shiva Darian, which focused on how to navigate difficult spaces/interactions as part of an underrepresented group in computing. My favorite talk was the third day's talk on "Storytelling For Powerful Communication" by Margie Zohn which focused on how to tell a general story. I learned that it's helpful to do toungue-twisters before giving a talk so you focus on dictation, and using present tense lets the audience "experience" the story better, among other things. Storytelling also shows up in many places within CS research and academia: paper writing, job interviews, teaching, etc.

Reflection & Takeaways

This workshop was a valuable experience to me mainly by being a safe space to share grad school experiences with a wide range of people. Personally, I think the fact that I was able to have deeper conversations with people I just met was very special (though one could argue that it's actually easier to share details with strangers).

It's often said that everyone has a difficult time in grad school. But, I find it hard to describe (in a nutshell) how difficult grad school is because everyone's grad school experiences are so different. Through this workshop, I was reminded that there are common themes shared between our experiences. Despite coming from different backgrounds (both as people and as researchers), there were many subtle commonalities between our individual hopes, successes, and struggles.

I was only able to come to this realization because people were willing to share the experiences they had, and empathize with the experiences I went through. I saw this willingness in a multi-hour conversation I had with a new mentor, in people chiming in during the Q&A portion of the Human-Human interaction panel, in lunch discussions, hallway conversations I had with professors, and more. When enough people talk about similar themes, be it multiple paper rejections or difficulties with work-life balance or administrative nightmares, I found that it brings a feeling of empowerment to the room. And this feeling of empowerment, along with peoples' willingness to be vulnerable, only existed because the workshop was a safe space.

Ultimately, I felt like I brought a lot of imposter syndrome to this workshop, and left a lot of it behind when I left. And for me, that was a really big win.

That being said, I honestly wish I knew about this workshop earlier. A lot of the advice I heard during the three days were not new, and there were a lot of advice that Ayaka from a year ago would have benefitted much more from. So, I think this workshop may be more useful to early-stage grad students than late-stage students. That being said, it's always better late than never! I still think I got valuable experiences out of this workshop, and I'm really glad I went.

I'd like to say thank you to everyone who I met in those three days, and to all of the organizers! It was a pleasure to meet you all and share our grad school stories.

Lastly, if you are eligible and haven't been to Grad Cohort yet, I hope this post encouraged you to apply!