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Women in science

Arizona State University has launched CareerWISE, an online resource that helps women navigate their postgraduate educations in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The website is designed to reduce attrition among female students by drawing on psychological research on why women in STEM PhD programs earn degrees at a 7 percent to 10 percent rate lower than men, says Bianca Bernstein, PhD, the project's principal investigator and a counseling psychology professor at ASU.

Even though women actually outnumber men in graduate psychology programs, "at a lot of the advanced levels of science and engineering, there are still very few women," Bernstein says.

CareerWISE researchers used a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create the website's tutorials that build students' "resiliency skills" — defined as the ability to overcome typical grad-school challenges. The site includes briefs on such topics as recognizing sexual harassment, helping your adviser help you, and finding out what services your program provides for mothers and families.

The site also pays particular attention to the challenges that research shows women cite when they decide to give up on their PhDs, such as a loss of balance between work and personal life, rocky relationships with peers or advisers, and doubts about whether the career is worth the stress.

But the site isn't just a collection of complaints and anxieties. One of its main features is HerStories, which includes video interviews with women about the difficulties they faced in grad school and how they coped with them. The idea, Bernstein says, is that graduate students can learn from the experiences of women who've earned their PhDs and can reflect on what they did right and what they did wrong.

"There's an accumulation of stuff that leads to a woman's decision that this isn't worth it, that there are better alternatives," says Bernstein, adding that the site will be expanded in the coming months. She thinks of CareerWISE as an "active intervention" where women can find advice on common grad-school problems, all of it grounded in actual lives and stories.

"Apart from all the studies that have reported on how bad the problems are," says Bernstein, "we're one of the major projects that's actually trying to do something about it."

—D. Jamieson