Voices from the Pipeline (Abstract)
Author(s): Shelia E.Widnall
If the current participation rates continue, the pool of science and engineering baccalaureates is projected to decrease significantly. However, the percentage of students from minority groups will increase. As a result, the graduate school population should change dramatically over the next two decades. Although percentages of minority engineering baccalaureates will increase minorities will still be underrepresented in graduate schools.
Nationally, women enter graduate school at the same rate as men; but the percentage of women in scientific careers is significantly less than that of men. Within a given field, there is a direct correlation between the way males and females support themselves and the time required to attain the Ph.D. degree. Females of all races and black men have less financial aid available, and so have less opportunity to devote full time to their studies.
In graduate school, the student begins to function as an independent scientist. Ideally, the faculty advisor helps the student to formulate, evaluate, execute, and defend the research problem. However, there must be opportunities for discussing future career plans and relating them to current interests and activities. Much stress in graduate school comes from the students' misunderstanding of this relationship. It is important for women and minorities to understand the connection between their career aspirations and their graduate school interactions in order to ensure that they achieve their full potential.
Graduate student surveys were done at MIT and Stanford to gain insight about the process of graduate education as seen from a student's perspective. The following results were obtained:
- Women are indistinguishable from men with respect to objective measures of preparation, career aspirations, and performance in graduate school.
- Women and men differed in the way they perceived their preparation for graduate study, the pressures and obstacles they experienced, and their strategies for dealing with these pressures. Women felt that they were less prepared and that their gender was a major obstacle.
- Men expressed anger at the system and suggested changes while the women more often described feelings of discouragement and frustration with the system and felt hopeless.
- Issues affecting minority groups corresponded to their feelings of powerlessness, pressure, and isolation from the majority.
- Women's self-esteem and career ambitions were comparatively lower than those of men. The women's goals were lower than those of the men.
Even though women in graduate school have academic backgrounds ( grades, courses, work experience, etc.) comparable to those of their male colleagues, a higher percentage of Stanford women than men commented that their preparation for graduate study was inadequate. In a study of MIT students, women were more likely than men to report they had difficulty in acquiring research skills.
Environmental issues also affect women's perception of themselves. In the surveys, many women stated that during their graduate school, they had encountered inappropriate behavior by faculty and other students that they felt wouldn't have happened to them if they were men. This treatment required time and effort to cope with and led to lower self-esteem and productivity.
The following are suggestions to address women's issues and concerns:
- Greater discussion between advisor and student of the student's academic background and ways that research should be pursued.
- Identification of ways of overcoming the students' weaknesses, and methods of acquiring research skills.
- Discussion of departmental expectations of student performance beyond the classroom.
The continuous percentage decline of people who attain the Ph.D. may be attributed to the existing environment and attitudes seen by graduate students. Communication barriers need to be identified and torn down. The faculty need increased sensitivity to the consequences of communication and to give greater consideration to acknowledging women as serious professionals. Faculty have to show willingness to provide a positive research atmosphere which will increase the self-confidence of female students. This change would improve the professional and human climate for all students in graduate schools.
Cite this page:
"Voices from the Pipeline (Abstract)"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Thursday, May 23, 2013