Categories: Newsletter 2021:1

An Interview With Participants From the Mentoring Workshop for Women and Nonbinary PhD Students in Economics

By: Angélica Meinhofer

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer
Dr. Angélica Meinhofer
Dr. Maya Rossin Slater
Dr. Jennifer Doleac

According to the 2019 Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP), women in PhD granting Economics Departments make up about 35% of first year PhD students, 30% of Assistant Professors, 26% of Associate Professors, and 14.5% of full Professors. Dr. Maya Rossin-Slater, an economist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, and Dr. Jennifer Doleac, an Associate Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University, teamed up with CSWEP to address this underrepresentation with a mentoring workshop for women and nonbinary 3rd and 4th year PhD students in economics. I interviewed Dr. Rossin-Slater, as well as other participants to learn more about the workshop and gather their perspectives regarding key challenges women and nonbinary economists face.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer: What do you think are the main challenges women and nonbinary students face while obtaining their PhD in economics?

Dr. Maya Rossin-Slater (Assistant Professor, Stanford University): I think all economics PhD students—regardless of gender identity—face a number of challenges, especially as they transition from taking classes to producing independent research. This is an incredibly daunting transition, and many students struggle with it. How do you come up with research ideas or know if your ideas are any good? How do you spend your days when there is no clear structure of classes? There is so much “hidden curriculum” out there that is not typically taught in any formal way. As a result, students who are better connected tend to receive more information and support than those who are not. Women, as well as other historically under-represented groups in the economics profession, including Black and Latinx students, and first-generation students, are at a particular disadvantage. These students may not get as much support and mentoring in their departments. They may not see anyone in their faculty who looks or thinks like them, and may feel isolated as a result. They may be told that their ideas are not “economics” enough or that they are not of “general interest”. They may not have the right connections to find out about jobs and opportunities. And they may face these barriers not just when they are students, but also as they progress in their careers. This is why we must be intentional about providing additional support to students from these groups, in my view.

Dr. Daniela Morar (Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University): The main challenge for me was self-doubt. I was not as confident as my male peers and I took every failure as a sign that I wasn’t meant to be doing a PhD.

Dr. Allison Luedtke (Assistant Professor, St. Olaf College): In my experience, women in Economics PhD programs often feel like they are behind their peers in progress on their dissertation when often this is not the case. Hopefully, providing an opportunity to speak with peers at other schools, and with mentors who have experienced this before themselves, can help the participants in the workshop understand how much good work they have done up to this point, and that they are fully equipped to produce great doctoral work going forward.

Atia Ferdousee (PhD student, Middle Tennessee State University): The main challenge is to balance the Ph.D. and a personal life. I feel like there is always a rush that you are being late for something. Late for marriage, late for having a child, late for getting a real job, etc. It drains our energy a lot. 

Participant (PhD Student): Figuring out what the hidden curriculum is, who to talk to, who to trust for unbiased and honest advice, and which career paths to possibly prepare for.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer: What do you think are the main challenges women and nonbinary PhD students face when seeking a tenured track Assistant Professor position in economics?

Dr. Catherine Maclean (Associate Professor, Temple University): I think balancing family and work. Women often take on more child responsibilities in the home, which can place extra burden on meeting work responsibilities. Further, for women who would like to have biological children, there is also a ‘time clock’ that may coincide with the tenure time clock. There can be very few female mentors within departments. I was the only tenure track woman in my department for five years. Women can often have to take on more service because they are women. They get asked to lean women-focused policies, which are great, but also mean more work for women as colleges/universities/departments often don’t really care that they ask women (and other minorities) to do more, they just want to be perceived as being progressive. Finally, there can be push back from older faculty on hiring a more diverse faculty. In sum, there are a lot of challenges.

 Dr. Allison Luedtke (Assistant Professor, St. Olaf College): In order to get a tenure track Assistant Professor position, you need to demonstrate to your potential employer that you would be capable of achieving tenure. Tenure requires making connections and establishing yourself within the profession, typically by publishing your work well. Empirically and anecdotally, women often have not made the same wide-ranging connections that many of their male counterparts have made by the time they go on the job market. As a result, it can seem that they are less prepared, less connected, and less well-positioned within a network of mentors for tenure track positions. Simply making connections between economics PhD students and economists within their field will make a huge difference in this perspective when the participants in this workshop go on the market.

 Question 3: In your opinion, what are important yet less known or misunderstood challenges and concerns that women and nonbinary economics PhD students face?

Dr. Daniela Morar (Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University): One thing that struck me was the fact that so many female students get competitive towards other female students. I think we should all be more kind and friendly towards each other.

Dr. Allison Luedtke (Assistant Professor, St. Olaf College): When PhD students move from taking classes to doing research independently, it can be a particularly difficult transition. What I have seen – in my own experience with this transition, in my peers, and in some of the participants I spoke with at the workshop – it can be very difficult to go from having a vague (good) idea for a dissertation project to actually getting your hands on the work of doing the project. You need to actually work with the data, start doing the research, and this is often a point where students can get stuck. This may be especially true for women because they typically more risk averse and afraid of public failure.

 Dr. Angélica Meinhofer: What do you think are tangible strategies (1) Economics departments, (2) PhD advisers, and (3) students themselves could implement to address these challenges?

 Atia Ferdousee (PhD Student, Middle Tennessee State University): We need some forums/groups/sessions to talk about these issues and support each other. Ph.D. is a very lonely journey. Any help/support makes a big difference here.

 Dr. Daniela Morar (Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University): Given that women are less likely to seek help, PhD advisers could try to check on the female students more. 

Dr. Allison Luedtke (Assistant Professor, St. Olaf College): My advisor was a very good sport about me showing up, week after week, with more math and more literature reviewed, but eventually he had to sit me down and say, “Allison write the code.” This was a very helpful conversation for me. If advisors say early on that you have to get your hands dirty and you’re not going to have pretty results at the beginning and that’s part of the research process and it is FINE, there might be less “everyone is farther along than I am” anguish.

Dr. Catherine Maclean (Associate Professor, Temple University): For the big-picture items, I think there needs to be serious buy-in from universities, it needs to be from outside the department. Colleges and universities need to “put their money where their mouth is.” You hear a lot of “we want to hire more women,” but there is little support to do this. You need to be able to make good offers to candidates. If you want women to work harder on women-focused initiatives, give them course reductions. Don’t ask them to do additional work without some type of compensation or support. Create university policies that allow departments to make targeted hires. Otherwise, we have to go through a full (extremely slow/clunky) hiring approach, which is draining on the department. At more micro-levels, advisors need to be supportive of the goals of their students. I hear all the time that some advisors only push students who want to go to academia and ignore their other students or put little effort into them. I think advisors need to be honest with their students about the field and its challenges, this will allow students to make informed choices about their careers. I think students need to seek out mentors who will support their goals, which can be challenging but conversations can help. 

Participant (PhD Student): It seems standalone opportunities are handed to some favorites and are not fairly rotated. No one knows what the criteria is and why one is not picked for a particular year. This might have something to do with the hidden curriculum. I did not know what it was nor do I know now what it is. A strategy that worked for me when seeking teaching opportunities is I decided to create my own standalone experience. It worked because the professor for whom I was TA-ing decided to give me a chance: she offered me one chapter that I would teach and provided feedback after every class session I taught. For two extra hours a week, she will let me in on how the assignments, quizzes, and exams are created; and how everything falls into place on the syllabus. She also showed me the important work the teacher needs to do to always stay sharp and current with extra research materials and correct lecture slides. This built in me confidence to apply for an adjunct position in the nearby town. This time, I was in charge and I had a wonderful standalone experience. I learned to balance my thesis research and teaching. The professor described above sat in my classes to provide more feedback. I will forever be appreciative of her for taking me on as an apprentice for the entire semester. Sometimes, the student needs to take the initiative. The CSWEP workshop validated my current efforts; reconnected me to alumni; and exposed me to job opportunities, new peers, and other women’s experiences in the field. I learned a lot in a really short time.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer: What did the workshop entail?  

 Dr. Maya Rossin-Slater (Assistant Professor, Stanford University): We assigned everyone into groups of 5 students and 2 mentors based on their field of research. Students submitted 3-page proposals to their mentors and received feedback on these proposals in small group sessions. We also had two panels: one on “how to do research” and another on “getting to know the economics profession.” We prepared questions and students asked their own questions as well. We had 6 mentors on the first panel, 5 mentors on the other panel, and other mentors chimed in as well. We also had opportunities for some informal networking (all virtual). The goal is that students receive a lot of useful information during the workshop and also get to establish and maintain groups of peers and mentors to stay in contact moving forward.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer: What are some strategies/insider skills taught at the workshop?

 Dr. Maya Rossin-Slater (Assistant Professor, Stanford University): We had a lot of useful tangible suggestions from the mentors about a variety of specific topics, including how to generate research ideas, how to structure your day-to-day work schedule, how to choose an advisor, how to have successful and productive relationships with advisors, issues relating to co-authorship (with other students, with faculty, etc.), conferences, jobs, and so on.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer: What are the next steps for the workshop?

 Dr. Maya Rossin-Slater (Assistant Professor, Stanford University): This is my second time organizing the workshop. The idea for the workshop originated in my NSF Career grant proposal, and I did a pilot run at Stanford last year for California-based PhD students only. This year, I’ve teamed up with Jennifer Doleac and had support from CSWEP (special thanks to Rebekah Crowe from CSWEP who helped us navigate all the logistical challenges that go along with organizing an event of this size). We had originally planned to expand the workshop to students from across the country and host it in conjunction with the Southern Economic Association meetings. Due to COVID, we went virtual. A silver lining was that we were able to include many more students from all over the world. We still had more demand for the workshop than we could accommodate. We received over 250 applications from students and were able to include 120 of them (we allocated the slots randomly). We had 48 mentors, who are early career economists both in and outside academia. My hope is that this type of workshop will become more institutionalized in the profession. I would love to see it continue in the years to come.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer: What is the main takeaway you want students to get from the workshop?

Dr. Maya Rossin-Slater (Assistant Professor, Stanford University): At the conclusion of the workshop, I said to all the students: WE NEED YOU. THIS PROFESSION DESPERATELY NEEDS YOU. Economics is fundamentally the study of human behavior and how people make choices in the face of constraints. I firmly believe that we will not make progress on some of the most important issues facing our society today without a diverse set of voices contributing to the research and discussion. No matter where your career path will take you – be it academia, the government, consulting, a policy think tank – please remember that your work is valuable and important, not just because of its content, but also because it is YOU who is doing it. Be confident in your value to this profession, and do not ever apologize for the type of work and research that YOU find interesting. Progress and change may sometimes feel very incremental, but it is there, and YOU are the driving force behind it.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer:  If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your third-year PhD student self?

Dr. Maya Rossin-Slater (Assistant Professor, Stanford University): I would tell myself that this career is a marathon and not a sprint. And I’m definitely still running! It’s hard to fully appreciate all of the possibilities that come out of getting a PhD in economics because you may not even be aware that they exist when you’re still a student. And there will be many challenges and failures along the way, but at the end of the day, how lucky we are that we get to do this type of work.

Dr. Daniela Morar (Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University): I would tell myself to not be afraid to ask for help. I felt very insecure in my own abilities and was ashamed to admit whenever I was struggling. 

Dr. Allison Luedtke (Assistant Professor, St. Olaf College): Be honest about what you want to study. Don’t worry about what’s popular or what other people are studying or what the newest fad in research is.  What do you want to learn about? What problems do you want to solve?  Work on that, have some faith, and you’ll end up with something interesting. 

Dr. Catherine Maclean (Associate Professor, Temple University): I wish I had added a female to my committee, I think that would have been helpful to me, but counterfactuals are hard to know! Negotiate more on the market! Women on average do not negotiate as aggressively as men but they should, it is really important.

Angélica Meinhofer is an Assistant Professor of Population Health Sciences at Cornell University and a Co-Editor of the ASHEcon Newsletter.