|Maria Madalena Ferreira, Ph.D.
FERREIRA, SPECIAL RWE ISSUE, FALL, 2002
These advisors had little awareness of
the high student attrition rate in their department (especially
female), or of the reasons that led many to leave before completing
Seeing that the average brain-weight of women is about
five ounces less than that of men, on merely anatomical
grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority
of intellectual power in the former. (Romanes, 1887, p.
Arguments such as this one, seeking to bar womens
access to higher education, were still common in the popular
science press by the end of the 19th century. Yet, in this
unwelcoming climate, many women made important contributions
to science (Rossiter, 1974). Some of them, Jane Colden (1724-1766),
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), and Mary Somerville (1780-1872),
were mostly self-taught or learned science while helping
their scientist fathers (Rossiter, 1974). However, many
at the time dismissed these early women scientists as aberrations
as illustrated by an article in an 1887 issue of The Popular
The savante - the woman of science - like the female
athlete, is simply an anomaly, an exceptional being, holding
a position more or less intermediate between the two sexes.
In the one case the brain, as in the other the muscular
system has undergone an abnormal development. (p. 205)
Although women have since secured access to all scientific
fields, their representation in many areas continues to
lag behind their male counterparts. In 2000, American universities
awarded to women only 15.8% of the PhDs. in engineering,
24.2% in the physical sciences, and 46.9% in the life sciences
(National Opinion Research Center, 2001). Womens representation
was even lower in some sub-disciplines in the aforementioned
areas. For example, within physical sciences women earned
only 14.7% of the Ph.Ds. in physics and astronomy and 16.5%
of the Ph.Ds. in computer science (National Opinion Research
The Ph.D. thesis in science is primarily an apprenticeship
in research (Conefrey, 2000; Holloway, 1993; Widnall, 1988).
During this period, students spend large periods of time
in a laboratory setting sharing space and equipment with
colleagues and research advisor. According to Conefrey (2000),
participating in a laboratory is crucial to succeeding
in science because it socializes novice scientists into
what is valued by their laboratory and by the larger community
of scientists to which they aspire to belong (p. 253).
Thus, graduate students experiences are strongly
influenced by their departments cultures (National
Science Foundation (NSF), 1998, p. 4). Every Ph.D. granting
department in a university can set its own policies for
recruitment, admission, and curriculum requirements (Hirt
& Muffo, 1998; Office of Scientific and Engineering
Personnel (OSEP), 1996). Quantitative studies on graduate
student attrition indicate that the department is the best
unit of analysis when predicting graduate student completion
rates (Berg & Ferber, 1983; Ott & Markewich, 1985,
as cited in Girves & Wemmerus, 1988).
According to Hirt and Muffo (1998), departments are
guided not by institutional standards but by the norms of
the discipline, which in turn influence the climate for
graduate students (p. 18). Although women have become
increasingly visible in scientific areas, Eisenhart (1994)
contends that the norms of science continue to be prototypically
male (p. 193). These norms are expressed in the pedagogical
practices, which best meet male students needs (Lipson
& Tobias, 1991; Seymour & Hewitt, 1994); in the
communication styles, as those practiced in the science
lab (Conefery, 2000); and in the overall construction of
scientific knowledge (Eisenhart, 1994; Harding, 1991; Keller,
1985; Sonnert, 1995; 1996; Subramaniam & Wyer, 1998).
All these features of the culture of science interact resulting
in a climate that has been chilly for women
scientists and students (Dresselhaus, Franz, & Clark,
1995; Hall & Sandler, 1982; Meinholdt & Murray,
1999; Sandler, 1986; Sonnert,1995, 1996).
Much of the research on the gender gap in science and
engineering has focused on the reasons for females
lack of interest and achievement in science. Although investigators
(Hall & Sandler, 1982; Meinholdt & Murray, 1999;
Sandler, 1986; Sandler, Silverberg, & Hall, 1996) have
uncovered some context factors that contribute to female
attrition from undergraduate science programs, few studies
have examined, in a comprehensive manner, female attrition
in science at the graduate level. Golde (1998) contends
that, to understand doctoral-student attrition, we
must critically examine the role of discipline and program
in shaping student experiences (p. 55). The authors
of a recent National Science Foundation report on graduate
student attrition voice this concern and call for more qualitative
or contextual studies at the department and program level.
In the study reported here, qualitative and quantitative
data were used to examine the extent to which the social
climate in a chemistry department, as shaped by the students
relationship with colleagues and research advisor, contributed
to the differential attrition rate of female and male students
in the doctoral program.
A case study approach was used in the design of this study.
According to Merriam (1988), A case study is an examination
of a specific phenomenon such as a program, an event, a
person, a process, an institution, or a social group
(p. 9). The case consisted of a graduate science
department (chemistry) at a large research university.
The study took place in a chemistry department at a large
research university in the Midwest. The department offered
only Ph.Ds in all the major areas of chemistry, from biochemistry
to physical chemistry. However, students who decided to
leave before completing their Ph.D. were given a Masters
Degree if their work was deemed of adequate quality. The
students research advisor controlled this decision,
solely. The doctoral program was primarily based on research.
Incoming graduate students were funded for a period of five
years in the form of research fellowships and/or teaching.
Students usually taught the first year and received research
assistantships after joining a research lab. At the time
of the study, the department had 34 faculty members, all
male, 74% of them at the rank of full professor. Of the
186 graduate students 30% were female.
Results were based on survey responses from 84 graduate
students (31 females and 53 males) and semi-structured interviews
with 16 students (8 females and 8 males). Five of the students
interviewed (4 females and 1 male) had left the program
before completing their degree. The selection of students
for the interviews was done to insure a representative
sample in regards to gender, self-confidence level,
and intention to leave the program (LeCompte & Preissle,
1993). Six faculty members were also interviewed.
Data were collected through a 5-point Likert-type scale
survey questionnaire, interviews with students and faculty,
and department records. Students perspectives on their
work environment, as shaped by their colleagues and research
advisor, were based on 27 items on the survey and semi-structured
interviews. Thirteen of the items on the survey were used
to assess students perceptions of their relationship
with their colleagues (female and male). Sample items included,
In my lab there is a lot of collaboration between
my female and male colleagues and I feel welcome
to ask for help from my female/male colleagues (see
Table 4). Item 8 in Table
4 examined students overall satisfaction with
their working conditions. Eleven additional items were used
to examine students perception of their relationship
with their advisor. Items included, My advisor is
often available for advice and/or support and My
advisor has equal expectations for her/his female and male
students. Another item The level of mentoring
in my department is very high, was used to assess
students perception of the level of mentoring in their
department (see Table 5).
Two other items, one examining students intention
to leave the program, and another students perception
of their ability to handle the work required for their degree
were also part of the survey (see Table
3). Responses to the items on the survey were rated
on a 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree) scale,
with a midpoint defined as Undecided. Each survey
item included space for student comments. The alpha reliability
coefficient for the 27 items on the survey was .84.
Demographic items in the survey included students
major, ethnicity, gender, and marital status. Students were
also asked to report the average number of hours (per week)
that they spent conducting research in the lab, and to rate
their self-confidence level at two points in their program
-- when entering graduate school and at the time of the
study. The scale ranged from 1 (Very Low) to 5 (Very High),
with a midpoint defined as Moderate. Department
records were used to determine faculty and student composition
of the department, student undergraduate and graduate GPA,
and the student attrition rate (female and male) over a
The semi-structured interviews were conducted after the
surveys had been returned and were used to explore, more
in-depth, some of the issues uncovered in the survey, including
possible reasons for student attrition. Interviews with
faculty focused on questions aimed at assessing their awareness
of the student attrition rate (female and male), and their
perspectives on possible reasons that might cause students
to leave the program. The interviews were audiotaped and
took between 30 and 60 minutes each.
Independent sample t tests were used to identify significant
gender differences in student responses to the survey items,
students undergraduate and graduate GPA, the weekly
number of hours spent in the lab conducting research, and
self-confidence level when entering graduate school and
at the time of the study. A chi-square test was used to
determine significant gender differences in the student
attrition rate. Statistical significance was set at an alpha
level of .05.
The transcripts of the faculty and student interviews and
of student comments to the items on the survey were analyzed
using the techniques of naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln &
Guba, 1985; Miles & Huberman, 1994). After the interview
tapes were transcribed verbatim and students comments
to the survey questions copied, a text-based coding was
used (Miles & Huberman, 1994). As each transcript was
read several times, one- or two-word codes were attached
to each segment of the data. Similar codes were grouped
together and organized into broader themes.
As results in Table 1 indicate,
both female and male students entered graduate school with
similar undergraduate grade point average and self-confidence.
However, even though no gender differences were found in
student graduate point average and number of hours spent
doing research in the lab, the female students reported
a significantly lower self-confidence level at the time
of the study t (83) = -2.63, p = .01.
The drop in female students self-confidence was also
reflected in their consideration to leave the program (Item
1 in Table 3) and attrition
rate (Table 2). The student
attrition rate was determined by counting any student who
had left without a degree or with a degree different from
the one originally sought. Students who had been accepted
to the Ph.D. program but later changed to a Masters
Degree were included in the computation of the attrition
rate. This method was consistent with the literature (NSF,
1998; OSEP, 1996). The attrition rate for female students,
for each entering cohort over a nine-year period, averaged
45%, while the attrition rate for males, for the same time
period, averaged 30%. These differences were statistically
significant, X2 (1, N = 433) = 8.90, p = .003 (see
Table 2). Yet, no gender differences were found in students
response to one of the survey items examining their perception
of their ability to handle the work required for their degree
(Item 2 in Table 3). Thus,
female students drop in self-confidence (Table 1),
their high attrition rate (Table
2), or their consideration to leave the program (Item
1 in Table 3) could not be
related to their low academic performance (given their high
graduate GPA), or perception of their inability to handle
the work required for their degree.
Student Relationship with Colleagues
Because of the large number of hours spent in the research
lab, the social climate for the students in this study was
shaped, mainly, by their relationship with colleagues and
advisor. Research indicates that colleagues and advisor
are key agents in the socialization of new graduate students
into a discipline (Baird, 1992; Girves & Wemmerus, 1988;
Lovitts, 1996). According to Girves and Wemmerus (1988),
The frequency and quality of student/faculty interactions
appear to be important predictors of retention for men,
whereas both student/faculty and peer interactions are important
predictors of retention for women (p. 164).
Analysis of the data uncovered significant gender differences
in students perception of their relationship with
colleagues. As results in Table
4 show, the female students were less likely to agree
that their comments were taken seriously by their male or
female colleagues (statements 3a and 3b); that their male
colleagues asked for their opinion or help (statement 4a);
that they felt welcome to ask for help from their male colleagues
(statement 5b); that they often discussed science with their
male colleagues (statement 6b); and that they often socialized
with their male colleagues (statement 7b). The female students
were also less likely to agree that they were happy with
their working conditions (Item 8 in Table
Lack of Collegiality
The lack of collegiality identified in the survey was also
reflected in student comments during the interviews. According
to a female student, in her department each group
does their own thing. There are no interdepartmental collaborations
at all. Another female student described the environment
in her laboratory as A very independent sort of, you
do your own thing. When asked if she interacted
with other female students, she replied: Not really.
The other girls that entered, particularly in my area, are
at the other end of the hall.
The lack of collegiality in most laboratories and in the
department as a whole, contributed to a sense of isolation
particularly among female students. The absence of female
faculty members and limited number of female students in
most laboratories added to female students sense of
isolation, especially in laboratories where female attrition
was high. A female student described the lack of female
faculty as having no one to look up to. Another
female student commented on the impact that the high attrition
of female students had on her: All around me women
are leaving with their Masters Degree. And they are
all my friends, and I see what theyre going through,
and its very discouraging.
Data from the interviews suggested that the social climate
in the chemistry department was best characterized as competitive.
A female student described the environment in her department
as very competitive. Another one pointed out
that competitiveness comes where you do what it takes
to get ahead without regard for other people. Some
of the male students also commented on the competitive environment
of their department and laboratories. One of them described
the environment in his department as a cut-throat
atmosphere. According to another male student the
environment in his lab was a highly competitive environment
where you are constantly asked to prove yourself.
Still another one pointed out that the high work demands
created an environment that was incredibly uptight
Student Relationship with Advisor
As results in Table 5 indicate,
the female students also had a more negative perception
of their relationship with their advisor than did their
male counterparts. The female students were less likely
to agree that they had learned a lot from their advisor
(statement 4); that their advisor had the same expectations
for them as for their male colleagues (statement 5b); that
their advisor asked for the opinion of his female students
even when male students were present (statement 6a); and
that their advisor knew how to deal well with his female
students (statement 7b). The female students were also much
less likely to agree that the level of mentoring in their
department was very high (statement 8).
Analysis of the interview data suggested that the advisor
played a major role in the sort of social climate that existed
in the research lab. Furthermore, because of the large number
of hours that students spent conducting research in the
lab and the lack of collegiality that existed in the department,
the environment that existed in the lab was the main lens
through which students evaluated their experiences in graduate
Research on mentoring indicates that students who have
a mentoring relationship with their advisors feel professionally
affirmed and are more productive after graduation (Heinrich,
1991; Subotnik & Arnold, 1995). Successful scientists,
especially women, consistently report on the important role
that their advisors play in their careers (Davis, 1999;
Jacks, Chubin, Porter & Connolly, 1983; Sonnert &
As illustrated by female students response to statement
8 in Table 5, most of them
did not feel the level of mentoring in their department
was very high. Conversations with students during the interviews
also indicated that few of the advisors used a mentoring
approach in their relationship with their students. Indeed,
students referred to their advisor as my/our boss.
This perception was due to the organization of the research
lab, which resembled to a great extent a small research
enterprise. Incoming graduate students became part of a
research team when they joined a lab. The research projects
were financed by grants secured by the advisor. The advisor
provided financial support to the students who in turn performed
the work necessary to the success of the project. According
to a male student,
Its sort of a bargain, and the bargain is that
you go in, they give you a project to do because, of course,
they need to get this research done for their own purposes.
You fulfill your part of the bargain by doing this research
for three or four years and you get a Ph.D. The advisor
will then get a number of papers from that to then be
able to secure more grant money to continue another research
Indeed, students reported working between 40-65 hours per
week doing research in the lab and advisors expected, and
many demanded, this level of commitment as illustrated in
the comments from a male student:
I feel that periodically Im expected to prove to
my advisor that Im doing research. And in that sense
then, its much like an employee-boss relationship
where you have to prove to your boss that youre
worthwhile or else, you know, maybe you wont be
around much longer.
Some laboratories resembled small enterprises with as many
as 25 students and a few post-doctoral fellows. In these
labs most of the advisors effort was spent securing
funds and in finding efficient ways of running the operation.
This in turn created a social climate in the research lab
and department characterized by a narrow focus, competition,
and focus on fast results. According to a female student,
her advisor has used the term survival of the
fittest, and thats how he believes his lab should
be run. Thats how he believes the department should
be run, survival of the fittest. Another
female student described her advisor as running his
research groups so that we compete against each other. Im
competitive and I can compete against other people, but
its not really the type of atmosphere that Im
The attitude of some advisors toward their female students
also contributed to their sense of isolation as illustrated
in the following quote from a female student who had left
I felt that I was judged before I even had a chance to
show what kind of scientist I was. For some reason I was
judged negatively from the beginning. I dont understand
why. I worked on a project by myself and I worked so hard
to try to learn and understand everything. Why does my
advisor have favorites? I would force my advisor to say
hello to me in the hall, and he would barely do that.
But right after that he would stop and talk to someone
else, a guy, about drinking or skiing.
A male student who had also left described another such
I knew at least another professor who was terrible. He
created a terrible environment for both men and women
students in the lab, but particularly for women, though
he did not do it in an obvious manner. No woman had ever
gotten a Ph.D. under him. He had a huge ego, although
he had a good scientific mind. A friend of mine decided
to leave before finishing. She hated him. I wasnt
his student, but he even had a negative impact on me.
Another male student replied when asked why so many female
students left the program:
There were probably thirteen graduate students in my
subdiscipline when I came, half of them were female. I
think two of them got Masters degrees and most left
before or after their candidacy exams. All the female
graduate students left before getting their Ph.D. I think
it has to do with the fact that several of those students
went to work in very large male dominated groups. Im
left with the conclusion that somehow the environment
isnt friendly to women.
These results suggested that in some labs the advisors
excessive expectations created a competitive climate that
led to student sense of isolation.Among the female students,
this feeling of isolation was compounded by their small
numbers in most laboratories, their advisors lack
of support, and the absence of female faculty in the department.
Faculty Members Perspectives
When asked about the student attrition rate in their department,
most of the faculty members interviewed provided much smaller
figures than those computed in Table
2. According to one of them, the student attrition rate
was about one third. Another faculty member
responded that, about 10% leave the first year and
20% leave with a Masters degree. Everyone else gets
the Ph.D. In addition, most faculty members believed
the attrition rate in their department was similar for female
and male students. When asked whether the attrition rate
for female was higher than that of male students one of
the faculty members replied: I certainly dont
think so. The department has had an increasing number of
females and we have certainly a good record of placing them
well. Two other faculty members actually believed
that student attrition rate was greater for male than female
students. According to one of them:
A few years ago it was much higher for females. I was
involved in gathering that information and was appalled
by it. The reasons were always good, they decided to get
married or other things, but I believe a graduate student
recently looked into this and the attrition rate was lower
for females than for males.
Another faculty member was of the same opinion. In fact,
he was concerned about male students seemingly alienation
My concern is the traditional male that we used to have
in science who used to think this was going to be a great
career. He loved doing science, thought he would make
good money, have a family and a house, etc., etc. That
guy seems confused. He is not totally committed to this.
It used to be that women would come into chemistry, find
a guy, get married, and would quit. Now the women are
staying and the male students seem to be drifting off.
In addition to lack of awareness about the higher attrition
rate of female students, these two quotes also reflect a
common belief among the faculty in the department that women
left because of a significant other. Indeed, when asked
why female students left, most of the faculty members provided
similar reasons. According to one of them Some students
who leave are women. They choose to get married and leave
graduate school. Another faculty member replied:
Women more than men want the balance of work and family.
In most cases women realize that they dont want
to give up what they will have to give up for a job in
chemistry. So half-way through they say, the heck
with it, I dont want it. Far too many women
left with a Masters degree for that reason.
Two of the faculty members, however, did not believe marriage
was the main reason for female attrition. According to them,
students (female and male) left because they are not
up to it. Not being up to it signified
that students either did not have the intellectual capability
they are essentially not smart enough, or did
not possess the necessary motivation for the long hours
of research essential to success in science:
They find how many hours a week they have to work in
the lab; how many hours a day; that they have to do 2
or 3 things simultaneously, and while it is really nice
around here because they have lots of friends to talk
to, they arent accomplishing anything themselves.
Theyre just slowing down people around them.
The faculty members lack of awareness of the student
attrition rate, and their use of individual student characteristics
as justifications for those who left, support Lovitts
(1996) contention that, universities believe that
the problem lies not with the graduate school and the dynamics
of graduate education but with the students themselves
Discussion and Conclusion
According to Lovitts (1996), [graduate student]
attrition has less to do with what the student brings to
the university than with what happens to the student after
s/he has been admitted (p. 3). The results of this
study support Lovitts contention and illustrate the
importance that context factors play in female student attrition
from graduate science programs. In the department described
here, female students relationship with colleagues
and advisor were the main context factors that contributed
to student attrition. Furthermore, as the head of the lab,
the advisor played the most important role in the development
of the social climate that existed in the research lab.
Unfortunately, many of the advisors in this study contributed
to a climate characterized by competition and lack of collaboration.
Although this competitive environment might have contributed
to male student attrition, it had the most negative impact
on the female students, as illustrated by their loss of
self-confidence and high attrition rate. Researchers contend
that women tend to shy away from very competitive
projects more than their male counterparts (Sonnert
& Holton, 1996, p. 68). According to Holloway (1993),
[Women] respond to a challenge better if the process
of meeting it is framed as a collaboration rather than a
competition (p. 99).
The lack of collegiality in most labs and in the department
as a whole, combined with the lack of support from their
advisor, appeared to be contributing to a null environment
for many female students in this chemistry department. Meinholdt
and Murray (1999), contend that the blatant sexism that
exists in science has been substituted by a null environment
characterized by the exclusion of women from informal interactions
with peers and professors. Yet, according to Girves and
Wemmerus (1988), being treated as a junior colleague
by the advisor accounts for much of the variability in degree
progress (p. 185). Similarly, Tinto (1993) contends
that graduate student persistence in the last stage of their
work is primarily the result of the student relationship
with the advisor. This assertion is supported by research
on graduate student success (Davis, 1999; Girves & Wemmerus,
1988; Golde, 1996; 1998; Hollenshead, Younce, & Wenzel,
1994; Jacks et al., 1983). Students, particularly females,
who receive high levels of support from their advisors,
are more likely to succeed in graduate school and persist
to complete their degrees (Kluever, 1995; Lenz, 1995).
Davis (1999) points out that advisors in fields with few
women need to show genuine interest in their female students
work and make an effort to help them feel welcome. Unfortunately,
the data suggest that few of the advisors in this study
provided such support to their female students. Indeed,
one might argue that access to a Ph.D. in the chemistry
department reported here was controlled by the students
advisors, all white males, most of them holding prestigious
positions in the department and in the field. These advisors
had little awareness of the high student attrition rate
in their department (especially female), or of the reasons
that led many to leave before completing their degree.
Researchers contend that many of the issues faced by graduate
women in science are related to the lack of a critical
mass of women students and professors (Dresselhaus
et al., 1995; Meinholdt & Murray, 1999). Critical
mass is defined as the discrete point at which
the presence of a sufficient number brings about qualitative
improvement in conditions and accelerates the dynamics of
change (Etzkowitz, Kemelgor, Neuschatz, Uzzi, &
Alonzo, 1994, p. 51). Researchers have found a direct relationship
between the quality of the climate and the proportion of
women faculty and students in a science department (Dresselhaus
et al., 1995). Although 30% of the students in the department
in this study were women, their subordinate status and isolation
they experienced in their lab and department as a whole
had little impact on the quality of their working environment.
As Etzkowitz and others point out, A modest increase
in the number of women in science, without a change in the
structure of the scientific workplace, creates a paradox
of critical mass (Etzkowitz et al., 1994, p. 51).
The lack of female faculty, who could serve as role models
and mentors, added to the sense of isolation that many female
students in this study experienced. Although research indicates
that a mentor or role model does not necessarily need to
be of the same race or sex as the protégé,
seeing others of the same sex and/or race in positions of
power and expertise helps affirm ones career aspirations
(Astin & Astin, 1993; Janes, 1997; Kegel-Flom, 1995).
The lack of female faculty in the department reported here
was also an indication of the climate that existed in the
department. As one of the female students pointed out:
I chose this department because it seemed to be the best
academically. So I disregarded the fact that it didnt
have female faculty. I should have paid attention to it
because I really didnt realize what kind of indicator
Women have made considerable strides in their quest for
science. However, even though they no longer confront the
open barriers faced by their foremothers, their full access
to scientific knowledge continues to be challenged by those
in power. To the women in this study,
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in educational and professional contexts served as gatekeepers
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Dr. Maria Madalena Ferreira is an Assistant Professor of Science
Education in the College of Education at Wayne State Universtiy.