Monday, July 05, 2004

I just finished reading this Spring's issue of Status -- "A Report on Women in Astronomy" (from the American Astronomical Society). You probably read this a while ago as mail takes a long time to make it to Hawai`i. It's also on the web at this link under June 2004, but only as a PDF.

Anyways, I was struck by two things as I read through this issue. As I read an article entitled "Voices from the Pipeline," essentially an excerpt from Sheila Widnall's **1988** AAS Presidential Lecture, I was struck by how much things have NOT changed in over FIFTEEN years. I feel just like many of the female astronomy and physics graduate students she quotes felt back then. For example:

"More women report that [...] interactions with faculty do not provide helpful feedback on their research progress. There seem to be qualitative differences in the type of feedback that some women students are looking for. To quote one woman from the MIT survey: "My advisor tells me whether it's right, not whether it's important."

"Women students give their advisors a great deal of power in assessing their ability, and women are apt to internalize and validate their perceptions of this assessment."

"Men often feel comfortable with a communication style that seeks to reduce one of the protagonists to rubble in the course of a scientific discussion. After the storm is over, they quickly forget about the incident. For many women this style of interaction is unacceptable, either as a giver or a receiver. A woman student may take weeks or months to recover from such an interchange, and it may contribute to permanent loss of self-esteem."

(I know these things don't apply to all women, just as they can apply to some men.)

Now that I've finished up my dissertation and have had some time to think about what just happened -- that part of my life is over! -- I feel more disappointed than happy. I felt I was a better astronomy researcher when I began graduate school than I feel now that I've finished. And I feel profoundly disappointed that even in the end everything I did was not "good enough." But I am not writing this to feel sorry for myself because it's over with. But I wonder if women felt like this 10 years ago, and obviously some of us still feel like that today, what can we do so that in another 10 years graduate school can be a much more positive experience? (For all students.) The article has plenty of tips about how advisors need to learn to "communicate differently" and be more sensitive and so on. But that presupposes that your advisor actually thinks he/she has room for improvement or has the desire to improve.

I think nothing will ever change, because the people for whom the current system of graduate school doesn't work don't end up in Research I departments and don't end up being the Graduate chairs with the power to change the graduate school experience -- Catch 22.

Moving on to point two. There is a small article on a report called "The 3Rs -- Recruitment, Retention, Returning" published by the Institute of Physics (UK). It really irks me that they go into detail about how much money is "lost" if a woman leaves the sector early in her career. E.g. it costs approximately $80,000 to put a physics student through a three year post-graduate degree and if she doesn't stay in physics for XX years that money is lost. Then later in the same article they talk about how they have to give better career advice to children so that they know the full range of careers available to them if they study, for example, physics. An example they use is the current editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping (the magazine) who is an astrophysicist. But, wouldn't she count as "lost" under their accounting system and we should have never spent the money to train her? What are they really trying to say?

How did our academic system get to be so messed up? Whatever happened to enjoying learning? Do you know anyone who is actually HAPPY in graduate school?



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