SIDEBAR: The Rites and Wrongs of Passage: Critical Transitions for Female PhD Students in the Sciences

Henry Etzkowitz, Carol Kemelgor, and Joseph Alonzo have identified several "critical transitions" in the graduate experience in science and engineering where PhD students are "propelled forward, pushed out, or dropped down to a lower level" (1995). When successfully negotiated, these "ceremonies"-

-constitute the rites of passage to a doctorate. When too challenging, they turn into wrongs that can (and often do) impede progress. According to findings by Etzkowitz and his colleagues, many women science and engineering doctoral candidates find these initiations to be barriers.

Rites and Wrongs follows up earlier research [15] in which Etzkowitz and his colleagues interviewed 155 women doctoral candidates from a nationwide sample of science and engineering departments that included two that had graduated the most women; two that had graduated the fewest; and two that had shown the greatest improvement in increasing awards to women (1975-1990). In Rites and Wrongs, the researchers found that, "These academically superior women, who had typically been at the top of their undergraduate classes, were shocked upon entering graduate school to find themselves marginalized and isolated."

Although the "blind" grading of qualifying exams can lead to a welcome gender-neutral situation, "women tend to internalize difficulties and resort to self blame in contrast to men…" Female students often find it hard to establish the camaraderie with advisors so valuable to males and-without this collegiality-can fail to collect the advisor's vital invitations to and introductions at conferences that place his/her "social capital…like a mantle around the student." And, if these "issues of isolation, lack of direction, contacts, and conflict around . . . life choices continue to dominate, the student may withdraw before earning her degree."

For many of the women with science and engineering doctorates tracked by Etzkowitz and his colleagues to postdegree placements and interviewed, "the overwhelming [graduate school] experience…is that of isolation and disconnection in their departments and, in the most severely negative academic environments, among themselves."

Conclude Etzkowitz and his colleagues,

Critical transitions for women in science are not yet "rites of passage" into a welcoming community; transition points are often fraught with peril for female scientific careers. As women ascend the educational ladder, they increasingly find support at the early stages, only later to encounter the exercise of arbitrary authority or simple inattention to women's needs.

On other barriers women face in science and engineering, see Etzkowitz and Kemelgor, with Neuschatz, Uzzi, Mulkey, Seymour, and Alonzo (in press).

[15] Etzkowitz, Kemelgor, Neuschatz, and Uzzi (1994) and Etzkowitz, Kemelgor, Neuschatz, Uzzi, and Alonzo (1994).

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