Duke Team Awarded $1.25 Million to Create New Identity-Inclusive Postdoc Program

3 headshots
Nicki Washington, Shaundra Daily and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (from left to right) aim to provide identity-inclusive training to postdocs interested in computer science education.

Opportunities for three postdoctoral scholars could impact hundreds thanks to a new postdoctoral fellowship program led by Nicki Washington, professor of the practice of Computer Science and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies, Shaundra Daily, professor of practice of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Sociology.

The three faculty were already collaborators on the NSF-funded Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education (AiiCE, pronounced ace). This time, thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the National Sciences Foundation (NSF), they drew from personal experiences to develop the AiiCE-PRF (Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education-Postdoctoral Researcher Fellowship), a program that will not only increase postdoc retention in academia, but also increase the diversity of perspectives engaged in computer science education.

“If you look at a lot of the computer science postdocs, they are in theoretical CS,” said Washington. “That means that scholars who look like us and want to do work that's relevant to their lived experiences don't have the opportunity.

“We wanted to create an outlet for these scholars to be able to do the work that's meaningful for them and to them, and use that work to establish their careers as scholars.”

Washington clarifies that these are not positions in computer science, but rather in computer science education, and that graduates with a background other than computer science who wish to “bridge their work in the space of computer science education” are not just welcome, but needed.

“We are opening possibilities for people who have sat in spaces that the computer science community has often frowned upon and looked at as ‘soft sciences,’ and we are saying, ‘No, what they do is even more important for what we do, and we can't do what we need to do without their expertise.’”

During their two-year fellowships, three AiiCE fellows will conduct research on methods and practices of inclusive computer science education and will take part in professional development activities aimed not only at the job search process, but also at the beginning of their faculty careers, with a particular focus on the challenges of navigating academia as early career researchers with a background that differs from that of most of their colleagues.

“We’ll have monthly talks geared towards helping them think about their careers, including everything from mental health and well-being, to thinking about what kind of university they want to work at, to grant writing, publications and all of that,” said Daily. “We’ll be connecting them and involving them with opportunities that will help with their career building.”

“When I was in grad school, no one told me anything about racial matters in sociology because the assumption is that these departments, these organizations, are race, class and gender neutral,” said Bonilla-Silva. “That kind of mentality allows for what I have called in my own work ‘white normativity’ to reign supreme.

“The candidates for this position will be people who already have a sense that race, gender, class and ability matter, but they may not have all of the conceptual apparatus to understand how it matters, how to understand that behavior and develop a practice of resistance against it.”

“We're trying to be very holistic about this,” said Washington, “because we've all been in the situation where we recognize that we are in a harmful environment, but we also lacked the understanding of what we were getting into. We want to provide them with that kind of understanding based on our own lessons learned and our experiences.”

The structure of the fellowship means that its impact will spread much further than the three initial fellows and their mentors. The team estimates that the program will directly impact approximately 600 computing postdocs. How? By asking the fellows to share what they learn.

Throughout their fellowships, the AiiCE postdoctoral fellows will develop a series of webinars, aimed at Ph.D. students and other postdocs, where they will share what they learn about their experience, about how to look for postdoc opportunities, about how to navigate the job market and other topics.

“A lot of this stuff none of us knew coming in,” said Washington. “We were fortunate enough to have somebody take us under their wing and say, ‘This is what you do,’ or we learned from trial and error. We really want to make sure that other postdocs don't have to worry about these kinds of practical things.”

These materials will benefit not only postdocs and graduate students, but also faculty mentors.

“The faculty advisors make or break an experience for postdocs,” said Washington. “These lessons learned should be turned into best practices for how anyone, not just in computer science or computer science education, but for how any faculty member should be working with their postdocs, how they should be preparing them to succeed and make the next transition into industry, academia or beyond.”

And if these three postdocs wish to remain in academia, having been an AiiCE postdoctoral fellow at Duke will add a prestigious line to their CVs.

“Having these postdocs here will give them leverage, not only through the training but also through the imprint of a Duke postdoc, and will help alleviate the so-called ‘scarcity problem’ in academia,” said Bonilla-Silva. He clarifies that data shows that the lack of job applicants with marginalized identities isn’t a scarcity problem, but rather an issue with excessively narrow search criteria.

The team hopes that this grant will be serve as a model for bigger and wider initiatives at Duke.

“We need to see the university prioritizing these kinds of programs and efforts,” said Washington, “because with any grant, NSF is looking for sustainability. They're looking to see institutional commitment to this work.”

“Academic units often consider themselves to be bastions of objectivity,” said Bonilla-Silva, “but race, sexuality, ability, they all matter in computer science, engineering, in sociology, much like they matter elsewhere. Every department and every program should be applying for this grant. Many foundations, not just NSF, have pockets of money specifically for diversity purposes, and every department should be aggressively pursuing opportunities to diversify their field.”

Washington ends the interview with a challenge:

“What is Duke going to do to make sure that the three of us are able to keep this going, that we're able to create the change that everyone says they are committed to creating?”


The AiiCE-Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (AiiCE-PRF) aims to increase the number of postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) from groups that are historically underrepresented (i.e., Black, Indigenous, Latinx, women, LGBTQ+, disabled, first-generation college graduates, and their intersections) and the number of postdocs performing identity-inclusive computing education research. Applications are currently open. Priority review begins January 1, 2023, and positions begin summer 2023. For more information, or to apply, visit the AiiCE-PRF Academics Job Online listing.