Achieving Advanced Degrees
Pursuing higher education after receiving an undergradauate degree is an important and life- and career- changing decision. Whether it's a master's degree, Ph.D., or postdoctoral work, the pursuit of an advanced degree can consume a large portion of a person's life. For women in STEM fields, this decision is highly multifaceted. Many factors come into play, such as whether or not the woman in question received strong academic support or advising during her undergraduate studies.
These factors also apply to men, of course, but considering that the number of women in STEM have only begun to increase fairly recently, gender clearly plays a powerful role in guiding career paths. Of the women interviewed for this project, it is important to note that their responses varied. Dr. Parker Jones mentions an early experience with a sabotaged project as sparking her recognition of the possibility that women's reproductive health was devalued, while Dr. Burrows cites male mentorship as the push that encouraged her to achieve a Ph.D.
"Somewhere in my first year, during basic anatomy, we had the opportunity to... I think it was actually a research experiment that class was divided into.
Students could do anatomy on the entire body, or you could divide up into teams, do one part of the body in depth and then teach the other people who did the team concept, your part of your body. So I was very interested in hands because hands are pretty amazing. And so I was paired with a group of people who wanted to do hands, but three of the women, four of the women in my class decided they wanted to do the female pelvis.
And so they were strong women and, as they would say, they were feminists where I didn't even think about that. They had decided they wanted the female pelvis and one morning they came to their body, that they had been carefully dissecting, so they could teach it.
And it had been mutilated, essentially all the female parts had been torn up and we don't know who did it, but this to me, it was the first time I actually saw that women could be both registered against and there could be, this felt like violence to me. And I had my eyes opened."
~Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones
"I think that every, everybody needs to get pushed out of their comfort zone a little bit, and then they really discover what they're capable of. That certainly happened to me. I think that when I decided to apply for academic positions, there was a post-doc in France.
I called back to Cornell to my PhD advisor and we had this little chat— very short!— because, you know, few dollars per minute to call from France. And so I talked to him about, you know, my plan, I was going to apply to academic jobs. And then he said a key thing… that made all the difference. He said, 'Well, I am going to assume that you are only applying to the very best chemistry departments in the US, and I will write my letter accordingly.'"
Oh, okay. I better apply to the very best places in the world. That's what's expected of me. So...I don't know if I would have without that little nudge."
~Dr. Cynthia Burrows
According to a research study done by the Frey research group, there are two major factors that lead to the high turnover rate of women in STEM: perceived belonging and belonging uncertainty. Belonging, as defined in the accompanying paper, is a "fundamental human need that influences achievement." Perceived belonging in this study refers to "overall evaluations of their fit and social relationships," while belonging uncertainty is related to the stability of a student's self-perceived ability and confidence in the observed area of study over time.
The study concluded that negative shifts in perceived belonging and increased uncertainty were fed by classrooms dominated by one gender or the other, messages that learners' abilities are fixed (as opposed to the promotion of a growth mindset in the classroom), and gender stereotypes about quantitative reasoning. Women and minority groups tended to report lower perceived belonging and higher belonging uncertainty. While this study was done at the freshman undergraduate level for chemistry courses, experiences at this foundational level must certainly contribute to decision-making for women aspiring to STEM careers.
Page written and researched by Abigayle Kendall, Kaylee Martin, Rachel Nelson, and Eva Quintus-Bosz.