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Women and Graduate School

Guest Author - D. Lynn Byrne, Ph.D.

Do you remember your undergraduate years? When the number of men and the number of women on campus were probably about equal? Well, graduate school is an entirely different environment.

In most instances, and you can search the web or your local library and pick up all sorts of solid, statistical references about women and graduate school, the number of men enrolled in graduate studies and employed in graduate faculty positions exceeds the number of women. At the master’s level, the differences aren’t so extreme—though you probably will notice men make up the larger part of your classes; however, at the doctoral level, men generally far outnumber women.

Why is this important? From my perspective, there are differences between men and women that surpass the physical: we communicate differently, we collaborate differently, and we solve problems differently. All of these things—communication, collaboration, and problem solving skills—are essential skills for graduate students and an inability to bridge this social divide can, in my opinion, create barriers between you and your professors or you and your peers.

Does this mean, as a woman, that you have to adapt your behaviors and become more mannish? Absolutely not! But we do have to make deliberate efforts to see the differences. For example, one of the primary teaching methods used in Western graduate schools is the Socratic Method. Professors ask you to analyze a topic and present your ideas, then ask you questions and challenge your theories. This critique is meant to help the student think critically about their topic.

However, Western women—and again this is my perspective, though you can find a variety of social research supportive of this argument—tend to be socialized to take this “criticism” negatively, internalizing their professor’s and peer’s comments as critical of their intelligence or of their ability to analyze, communicate and defend their ideas. We may lash back at those providing criticism, giving our professors and peers the impression that we are responding emotionally instead of rationally. It can truly be a difficult cycle to break for some women and can prevent women from successfully completing their graduate studies.

In this vein, I took time out to visit with several of my peers in different graduate departments at my institution to see how they handled the man/woman issue. I’ve pulled together what I thought were the most insightful or helpful comments and listed these bits of wisdom below.

  • Accept the fact that you are likely to be part of a minority for the first time in your academic career. But the best par is, if you succeed and earn your degree, other women may see and follow.
  • Embrace the fact that you are you, you are special, you are unique. You have something valuable to bring to the table—so bring it on!
  • Become part of a network—of peers, of other female students, of other students in your department—that is supportive and nurtures your academic and/or career goals. Form friendships and links to people that will help sustain you for the next two or three years—and maybe into the future.
  • Feel free to make allowances for someone else’s behavior, assuming that behavior is not injurious. At the same time, feel free to give in to the urge to comment on someone’s behavior if it’s just outrageous or offensive.
  • Make an effort to understand the conversation—sometimes there is a subtext and sometimes there isn’t. If you’re not clear on the meaning, ask for clarification.
  • Take a deep breath and count to 10 before responding to criticism that “feels” critical. We are rational human beings, even if we do feel like we really want to throw a book at someone.
  • If you’re not naturally assertive (do not substitute “aggressive” here), think about an assertiveness training course.
  • If you find yourself not being heard, lower your tone and speak with more force.
  • There is power in your femininity—rally in it!
  • My favorite bit of wisdom comes from a third-year doctoral student who is a mother of four and grandmother of two—learn to laugh. Some days, you just have to.


The message to take away from all of this I think is that the graduate experience is different than the undergraduate experience. More men are indeed enrolled in and teaching graduate courses and women are likely to be the minority in this environment. Finally, there are indeed differences in the way men and women operate in the academic environment, but the differences can be bridged.

Until next time! Lynn Byrne

If you would like to read more about women and graduate school, look for Rittner and Trudeau’s The Women’s Guide to Surviving Graduate School (SAGE Publications, 1997). The text is fairly expensive new, but used copies are available from several online booksellers and you can probably find one in your local public library.
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Content copyright © 2014 by D. Lynn Byrne, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.
This content was written by D. Lynn Byrne, Ph.D.. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Nicole Amos for details.

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