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Not for women only

By Margaret Mannix

A new book unravels some of the mystery for women about graduate school programs in science and engineering—and offers insights to administrators and advisers on keeping them in the program.

The Woman's Guide to Navigating the Ph.D. in Engineering & Science By Barbara B. Lazarus, Lisa M. Ritter, and Susan A. Ambrose, published by IEEE Press.

Women with dreams of a doctorate in science or engineering would be well served to forget what mama always said about playing nice. If females want to succeed in graduate school, they've got to be just as pushy, bossy, and aggressive as their male lab partners. Says one doctoral student in physics: "You really can't survive if you're timid."

That's just one of the lessons in the new book, The Woman's Guide to Navigating the Ph.D. in Engineering & Science, recently published by IEEE Press. In this day and age, it's hard to fathom the necessity of such a tome. But one look at the numbers and you'll understand why: According to the National Science Foundation, women earned less than half of the doctorates in science in 1998. Of those, only 16 percent were in engineering.

Culture is to blame for some of that imbalance, as society seems to rubber-stamp males as the brainiacs of math and science. Women who excel in those disciplines are oftentimes considered anomalies. However, some of the bleak showing in the statistics lies in the nature of the doctoral programs. Co-author Barbara Lazarus, associate provost for academic affairs and adjunct professor of educational anthropology at Carnegie Mellon University, says the testosterone-laden fields of science and engineering are booby-trapped with all sorts of stereotypes and hidden barriers. "Women need to learn how to maneuver in a predominantly male graduate school environment, how to think like academics, and how to be politically astute," she explains in the book.

Doctoral candidates aren't the only ones who will find the insider secrets spelled out in the book to be illuminating. If higher education is serious about attracting more women to engineering, then administrators, advisors, and professors of both sexes must critically examine what's going on in their own backyards.

That's crucial, says Lazarus, because "there are all kinds of little ways in which the system does not work for women." It could a good old boy atmosphere that short-changes female opinions and contributions. It could be that the male doctoral candidates gather for informal lunch bunches, unwittingly trading inside knowledge much like key business gets conducted on a golf course. It could be that department meetings are held at a time when, say, children need to be picked up from school, a disadvantage to someone who has a major role in child rearing—typically the female half of the parenting duo. It could be a dearth of female role models or inequality in financial backing.

Lazarus et al have divided their counsel into four sections that reflect the graduate school experience: How a Ph.D. program operates; making it work; potential perils and pitfalls; and, last but not least, life after the Ph.D. (In other words, finding a job.) Sprinkled throughout the various chapters are instructive vignettes from current doctoral students and women in leadership positions in academia, like Lydia Villa-Komaroff, associate vice president for research administration and professor of neurology at Northwestern University. During graduate school, Villa-Komaroff purposely avoided contact with anyone who didn't think women belonged in the world of science. "I guess that was a blessing because I never felt like I didn't belong or shouldn't be pursuing something that I loved. I learned early on that it's a very good ploy to act confident even when you're not because then people perceive you as confident, and that makes a big difference."

One of the most important strategies in a successful doctoral journey is working with the right adviser, one that will help develop a student's full potential and remain a lifelong sponsor. Lazarus and her co-authors highlight what makes such a relationship tick. A faculty member who shares the same interests and philosophies tends to make a candidate feel more comfortable. An adviser should be able to communicate honestly and effectively. After all, the pairing may last several years. Of course, senior faculty members are no doubt better connected, but may not be able to spend as much time with the student as a junior faculty member. But what if the match isn't made in heaven? Changing advisers might be tough. Perhaps other faculty can fill the void in the existing twosome. In any case, remember to approach the problem with tact. You never know when you'll need to rely on your former adviser. The chapter also provides insightful tips and nitty-gritty advice on acing qualifying exams, choosing a dissertation topic, and developing a thesis action plan. For example: "Plan far ahead when ordering equipment for experiments. It may take a long time for it to arrive."

Women graduate students with low self-esteem will find the book chock full of ways to exude confidence, a major prerequisite when defending research, abilities, and accomplishments. As most professors and students in science and engineering are male, woman may need to bring in reinforcements. Lazarus suggests building a support group, seeking counseling, joining professional organizations, participating in student activities, and attending conferences. Above all, get a grip on the realities of graduate school. "It's not a sign of weakness to need a supportive environment," say the authors.

Women might also find the learning method in graduate school unfamiliar, intimidating, or difficult. No more lecture-study-test that defines the undergraduate years. In graduate school, learning stems from critique and discussion. Some women tend to feel browbeaten when bombarded with seemingly harsh questions or consider them personal affronts. Negative feedback should be viewed as part of the process. Learn to evaluate criticism (opinion) and decide if it's valued, say the authors. Females also tend to internalize problems, which leads to discouragement and feelings of self-doubt. The man "is more likely to think the equipment was bad or the gods were conspiring against him," says Lazarus. "He is more likely to externalize the problem."

Women students who strive to balance school and private lives may also find their doctoral sojourn a smoother ride. Learn to focus on the task at hand, prioritize, and set realistic goals. Everyone—not just graduate students—occasionally feels overburdened and anxious. Again, turn to friends and colleagues for support and advice. "Find a group of confidants whom you can trust." And, for goodness sake, ride a bike, sit down to dinner with the family, or take a vacation.

Making use of a newly earned Ph.D. can be a challenge, so the book's final chapter helps students decide what type of job they might like, how to approach and conduct the job search, and how to go about the all-important task of networking. "No one should be left out of your circle; you never know who can give you a promising lead on the perfect job," say the authors. Facing an academic or industry interviewer? The book spells out how they differ. There are examples of what sorts of questions a student might expect and shouldn't expect ("Are you pregnant?" is a no-no) from a potential employer and how to be a model interviewee. "Always have at least a few questions for the interviewer. It shows your interest in the job and in the process."

Of course, one of the most important questions in the job search is usually saved until last: salary. For women, negotiating an offer can be a daunting task. But consider this, says Lazarus: A man and a woman are offered the same salary in the same department. "She will say thank you very much and take the job. He will say, is that your best offer? He will get another $4,000 and she won't." That smaller sum can haunt a woman during her career, as increases are typically percentages of current compensation. Who says talk is cheap?



Margaret Mannix is a freelance writer based in suburban Washington, D.C.
She can be reached at mmannix@asee.org.


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