Giving early-career women in mechanical engineering the tools to succeed in academia

For two days in late October, 34 of the brightest minds in mechanical engineering convened on MIT’s campus. They all come from different backgrounds — one person studies human-robot interaction at Stanford University while another conducts research in thermal equipment design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But they all have one thing in common: They are all female graduate students and postdocs considering a career in academia.

These women attended the inaugural Rising Stars in Mechanical Engineering Workshop hosted by MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. The program, which is modeled after the successful Rising Stars Workshops in biomedical engineering, physics, civil and environmental engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science, aims to prepare women for the challenges associated with a career in academia. Topics covered ranged from leadership skill, to establishing a lab as a junior faculty member, and communicating their research vision.

“Our goal throughout the workshop was for them to develop professional skills as they envision a career in academia,” said workshop co-chair Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Professor and department head for mechanical engineering. “Providing these talented young women with more mentorship and career skills can help pave the way for gender parity in mechanical engineering departments around the world.”

Wang kicked off the workshop by welcoming the researchers, who had been selected for the workshop based on their many achievements. She then introduced Deborah Burstein, a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who also works for the MIT IMPACT Program. IMPACT helps researchers better articulate their work and identify ways they can make a lasting impact in their fields.

“Many of the participants commented that they wish they had learned the skills discussed in the IMPACT sessions in graduate school as it would have made their grant proposals much more effective,” said Theresa Werth, the program manager for Rising Stars in Mechanical Engineering.

The first day concluded with a series of panels where faculty from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering reflected on their own experience as early career researchers. The first panel focused on the journey from student life to faculty life. When asked about the most important thing to do in the first year of a faculty job, Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering, extolled the virtues of patience.

“It’s helpful to recognize that there is a gestation period for a new faculty member. It takes a few years to get up and running, and that’s okay,” he said.

In a second panel, faculty discussed the various choices and serendipitous events that have altered their career paths. Yang Shao-Horn, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy, emphasized the importance of reflection when deciding what projects to focus on.

“When we look forward we don’t know the risks or benefits, it’s only when we reflect that we can see clearly,” Yang said. “It’s a journey about knowing yourself.”

Akanksha Menon, a postdoc at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found hearing personal stories from young faculty useful. “Just to know that they were in our same shoes and felt the same insecurities or faced the same challenges – that’s been really great,” said Menon.

The second day of the workshop focused on the most pressing question on the minds of most PhD students and postdocs: how to get a job. A team from HFP Consulting introduced participants to the leadership and management skills needed to build a successful career in research.

The final lecture was given by Maria Yang, MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering and workshop co-chair.

“We assembled a truly inspiring group of young women,” said Yang. “They were incredibly engaged and enthusiastic throughout the workshop. By the end of the two days, they had even more confidence than when they first walked in.”

The women said they left the event with more than confidence and career building skills, they were now a part of a new community. For Kelilah Wolkowicz, a postdoc at Harvard University who recently completed her PhD at Penn State where she focused on wheelchair design, the comradery she felt with her fellow attendees was a highlight of the workshop.

“As you bounce from one university to another, it can be hard to establish a community of peers,” Wolkowicz explains. “This workshop has really helped with that because we've been able to meet so many women in our field who will be following similar career trajectories.”

In the coming years, Rising Stars workshops will be hosted by mechanical engineering departments at both Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.