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A Woman’s Guide To Graduate Studies

Guest Column
Maribel Vazquez

I was happily surprised to see that the center section of the April 24 edition of The Tech was dedicated to women’s issues at MIT. The section addressed numerous issues particularly affecting women such as discrimination, child care, and sexual violence. The articles also incorporated many quotes from MIT students relating their experiences as females at the Institute.

However, although the section was excellent as a whole, it was largely concerned with the issues facing the MIT undergraduate population. Sadly, women’s issues become increasingly complicated as women pursue graduate degrees. One of the major concerns of women in graduate school is low enrollment. Although The Tech reported that in 2000 a third of all students enrolled at MIT were female, the percentage of women enrolled in doctoral programs was closer to 10 percent. MIT is now working to address the issue of low female enrollment in graduate programs.

As part of our involvement, MEGAWomen (The Mechanical Engineering Graduate Association of Women) has arranged for a guest speaker to give a seminar at MIT this Friday, May 4. The speaker is Dr. Barbara Lazarus, who has recently co-authored a book entitled The Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Ph.D. in Engineering and Science. Dr. Lazarus is an associate provost at Carnegie Mellon University and has written several articles on women’s issues in graduate education. Below is an excerpt from her book that can also serve as a preview of the seminar.

Attendees can gain insight from the discussion regardless of whether they are students or faculty, female or male. Dr. Lazarus will speak on May 4 from 6-7 p.m. in room 3-133 preceded by a reception from 5-6 p.m. in the same room.

The excerpt below is from The Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Ph.D. in Engineering and Science, by Barbara B. Lazarus, Lisa M. Ritter, and Susan A. Ambrose, which offer important insight into this problem. The excerpt is reprinted with the authors’ permission:

“As an undergraduate, your professor lectured on a series of topics on which you were later tested. The lesson was clearly defined and you were learning existing knowledge. In graduate school, the method of learning is very different -- and difficult for a number of women. Although your classes seem like those in college, the ultimate goal of attending these classes is to help you search out questions and define your research interests -- not to specifically “learn” a lesson. As you progress in your graduate work, both faculty and peers challenge and test your ideas. Although the questioning may be intense, the professor is really trying to test the student’s analytical, reasoning, and communication skills.

“Many women perceive insistent questioning as harsh and negative, or as a personal attack. Many women may feel vulnerable as a result of stereotypes portraying them as “dumb” and by asking questions and continually challenging their reasoning, many women feel that a professor is commenting on their intelligence or worthiness as graduate students. Although some women can positively respond to learning through critique, many internalize the criticism and only hear, “you’re wrong and you don’t belong here.” Self-esteem and socialization are the root of many women’s difficulty in dealing with new methods of learning in graduate school.

“The gender difference can also prove to be a disadvantage in working with a male advisor. If a male advisor believes that women may react more “emotionally” to criticism, he may not give her the feedback she needs to make her work better. And so the female student is denied an advantage that the male student is not, through no fault of her own (Mapstone, 1990).”

Maribel Vazquez is the co-president of MEGA Women.