Effects of an Online Personal Resilience Training Program for Women in STEM Doctoral Programs
An online training program helps women develop the resilience, confidence, and problem-solving skills to persist in their pursuit of PhDs in STEM.
Across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments, women account for less than a quarter of PhD candidates in engineering, and under a third in physical sciences. Women are also more likely than men to drop out of PhD programs, widening the gender gap among future STEM faculty, researchers, and innovators. Institutional and policy changes are critical, but slow-moving. Interviews show that women already pursuing STEM PhDs commonly experience challenges around four areas: advisor interactions, work-life balance, unfriendly climates, and setbacks. Female PhD students may benefit more immediately from stronger personal and interpersonal skills for overcoming such challenges. Prior research has also found that problem-solving skills, resilience, and confidence in one’s own coping ability can predict degree completion. In this study, the authors test the potential for an online resource to increase resilience and persistence among women in STEM doctoral programs. They used a website with instructional modules and exercises designed to teach problem-solving and coping skills around the four common challenge areas. Specifically, the authors examined the effects of 5 hours of independent exploration of the CareerWISE website on problem-solving knowledge, resilience, and coping self-efficacy among women pursuing PhDs in engineering and physical sciences.
Women who used the CareerWISE resilience training website for at least 5 hours demonstrated significantly greater problem-solving knowledge, resilience, and confidence in their self-efficacy to cope when considering common challenges in their STEM PhD programs.
- Online training produced a large positive effect on problem-solving knowledge (with a mean difference between treatment and control groups of 0.994) and moderate positive effects on resilience (0.663) and coping efficacy (0.600) among women who completed at least 5 hours of training, compared to women in the wait list control group, who received no training over the same time period.
- When women in the wait list control group subsequently completed 5 hours of online training, the training produced large positive effects on their problem-solving knowledge (1.32) and resilience (0.84) and a moderate positive effect on their coping efficacy (0.71), as well as small to moderate positive effects on their internal resources, confidence in their ability to achieve educational and career milestones, coping styles, and perceptions of setbacks as barriers (0.55, 0.35, 0.45, and 0.27, respectively).
Given that prior research links these measures to well-being and persistence, the findings suggest that online training may effectively provide women with the personal and interpersonal tools to surmount obstacles on the way to their STEM doctoral degrees.
The study recruited 133 women in at least their second year of a PhD program from 23 universities studying chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering, computer science, applied physics, applied math, physics, astronomy, math, chemistry, or geological sciences. Participants were randomized by field (physical science or engineering) to either the treatment group or a wait list control group. Over two weeks, women in the treatment group logged a minimum of 5 hours independently exploring Arizona State University’s CareerWISE website. They then completed an outcome assessment covering problem-solving knowledge (25 items), resilience (16 items), coping self-efficacy (14 items), personal resources (18 items), confidence to achieve STEM landmarks (9 items), coping styles (16 items), and barrier perceptions (25 items). Women in the wait list control group completed the outcome assessment after a two-week waiting period. They then logged a minimum of 5 hours on the CareerWISE website and repeated the outcome assessment. Participants were given a $50 gift card for an online retailer at the end of the study.