Monday, March 02, 2009

Center Intelligence

Not long ago I heard about a program designed to encourage women to pursue advanced studies in math. This program, the Center for Women in Mathematics at Smith College, is a very smart idea. I am particularly intrigued and impressed by the post-baccalaureate program.

Women who have an undergraduate degree that was not math-intensive or who have an interest in math but are not ready for (or sure about) graduate study in math spend a semester or a year at Smith College, taking courses at Smith or one of the other nearby schools, doing research with a professor, and being mentored about graduate school and career options.

This all sounds great, but one of the most amazing parts is that there is a full tuition waiver and students are provided with a modest stipend. The funds come from the college and from NSF.

As a graduate advisor at a large university, I would be very interested in an applicant who had successfully completed such a program. In addition to the excellent experience gained via coursework and research, a student who spends an intense year on such an endeavor has demonstrated motivation and commitment. These are essential elements for success in graduate school, but are among the most difficult things to guess about applicants to a graduate program just based on application materials.

Wouldn't I be at all concerned that a student had needed an extra year to get ready for grad school and hadn't known since she was 4 that she wanted to study math? No, I would not be concerned at all. Not everyone knows what they want to do with their life, even when forced to declare a major in college. Not everyone gets the courses they need when they need them. A program like this could well have an impact on the number of women who choose and succeed in math-related careers.

To those who worry that women who receive their training in math or science at a women's college and who therefore might not be prepared for "the real world", I will repeat my usual response to this: Do you think women need practice being discriminated against?

If a young woman spends a semester, a year, or 4 years being treated with respect as a scholar, this will make her more -- not less -- prepared to deal with the so-called real-world.

Women's colleges may not be a good environment for all women, but I am glad they are still around and inventing new ways to help women succeed.

17 comments:

James said...

Yes, FSP, please talk more about discrimination. Age, race, gender.

Is it true that older PhD applicants are discriminated against?

And is it true that most people do their best Science work before Age 40-45? (Einstein says you are dead if you haven't accomplished anything before 30....)

Lynne said...

To those who worry that women who receive their training in math or science at a women's college and who therefore might not be prepared for "the real world", I will repeat my usual response to this: Do you think women need practice being discriminated against?

I... Do people say this about women's colleges?? I went to Smith (and majored in a science field), and it's done nothing but help my applications for schools and jobs as far as I've been able to tell. Women's colleges are fantastic places!

John said...

Seems like an excellent idea.

http://www.math.smith.edu/center/node/10

$1.5M from NSF for 5 years, about 8 students a year (at least one was listed both years on their web page). That's $300K/yr, or $40K/yr each. Plus whatever Smith adds as their match to the program.

Somewhat pricy, but if the graduates succeed, well worth it. It's not clear to me how they select the applicants who have underdeveloped skills from those that simply aren't that good, one must trust the admissions office.

Woman Chemist said...

"If a young woman spends a semester, a year, or 4 years being treated with respect as a scholar, this will make her more -- not less -- prepared to deal with the so-called real-world."

Granted, I'm biased having attended a women's college, but the support I received there has been unrivaled to anything else. People regularly tell me that they wish they had my confidence and that they admire the way I carry myself. I had opportunities to do independent research, and my adviser is still a friend and mentor several years later. Since leaving my bubble and going to a major research university in chemistry, I'll admit to a rocky start, and a jolt of reality of the prejudices and discrimination that exist in the sciences, but I'd like to think that having those 4 years of support allowed me to grow into a woman with the tools to better deal with such problems (read people). For any young woman considering a women's college - yes it's not for everyone, but they're not just charm schools either.

Jenn said...

Very interesting. Do you think a similar thing could be accomplished in the sciences? Or are there simply too many courses one needs to take before one is ready for science grad school?

chemfan said...

I wouldn't trade my years a women's college for anything in the world, but there are times that I wish I was prepared with a stronger/wittier rebuttal when faced with a sexist comment.

EliRabett said...

$40K/yr is just about what any graduate student costs. The interesting number would be what the tuition at Smith is and how much Smith is cost sharing.

OTOH, taking these students into a science program would probably not work because although they have the math, their science background would be weak

The History Enthusiast said...

I didn't go to a women's college, but I've been thinking a lot more lately about how I might fit in well as a professor at a women's college. I would like to be part of that kind of atmosphere.

Aspiring FSP said...

I also went to Smith (my first year of undergrad) and thought it was a very supportive place. I left to find more representation of a particular field, but my experience there was really valuable. I wouldn't ever want to give it back (even though it was insanely expensive).

My current advisor is always saying how prestigious Smith is, as well as other Four Year Liberal Arts Colleges. FSP, do you feel that a FYLAC education is preferable over a Big University education?

Scientista said...

Some people (aka men) are sexist without really meaning to be but I still think it's very offensive. One of my profs was talking about Venter in lecture, at which point I made a comment along the lines of "Oh great, not this guy again." (We had been talking about Venter in quite a few lectures in many different classes for a while now and it was getting to be really repetitive.) The prof replied "Why, did you two go on a bad date?". At which point, I got quite angry and retorted "Yes, he was quite charming but the evening was a total failure since he spent most of it telling me how insignificant your career is compared to his."

A rather nasty comment that surprisingly did not get me into trouble. All this to say to Chemfan that a stronger rebuttal might not always be the best thing...

New Asst. Prof. said...

I think this is a fabulous idea, not only for the intensive preparation for future study but what an environment like Smith can provide for women. I am the product of science training at a women's college (which has unfortunately gone co-ed recently for budgetary reasons), and I would do it all again. Graduate school is a major adjustment for everyone, but I was ready to stand up and conduct myself as a scholar, a skillset I highly doubt I would have had coming from Really Big U.

Ms.PhD said...

File it under 'arming athena.' I would have done a program like this. I'd also have done one for other types of science, since sometimes you don't realize, like you said, until later, what you want to do. And it's always changing.

oh and to the people saying they wouldn't have been armed sufficient at a Really Big U, I don't know about that. My school was co-ed and relatively large, but I never felt any discrimination until after college. If anything I think maybe having some 'protected' time might have been good, but only in the sense that discrimination will wear you down, no matter when it starts.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Still an undergrad I have first hand experience being discriminated against when I took on an internship at a cement company..my major was Chemistry..in Japan. There were two ways to rebute at that sort of discrimination...coax them into giving you opportunity...I'll leave the details to your imagination and the other was to work several times harder and prove your worth...but, the downside is...your future happiness would 'poof' disappear...as my many permanent colleagues were at the time.

Anonymous said...

There are some downsides to this. I saw the application of a grad school applicant who participated in a program like this. Her undergrad record was average, then she participated in such a program and got all A's. One of the recommenders said she was 6th out of 8th in one of her classes. So the end result is it looked like a cheap resume combover and not worth taking seriously.

The goal of these programs is to make unprepared people prepared, and naturally some unprepared people will just not be cut out for grad school. But they can't really just tell half the people in the program they're wasting a year of their life. So there's a pressure to grade inflate.

Anonymous said...

The goal of these programs is to make unprepared people prepared, and naturally some unprepared people will just not be cut out for grad school. But they can't really just tell half the people in the program they're wasting a year of their life. So there's a pressure to grade inflate.

I don't interpret it that way. I agree that grading standards may be pretty lax in math postbac programs, but I think this is in line with math grad classes in general (which are typically not graded very seriously, at least at the top departments).

One of the recommenders said she was 6th out of 8th in one of her classes.

This is why it's not a big deal. Nobody expects that the grades will play much of a role in grad school admissions; instead, the letters will give a lot more information.

Part of what's awkward is that grad schools vary tremendously, but there are only a few postbac programs. So the same postbac program may have one student who is going to end up in grad school at Princeton (and go on from there to tenure at a strong research university) and another student who is going to get a Ph.D. from Compass-direction Middle-of-Nowhere State U. and end up teaching high school. These are both respectable career paths and both students should be supported in their goals. If you use grades to differentiate between them, then the bad grades will hurt the second student's career for no good reason.

CosetTheTable said...

Smith is mostly self selecting in undergrad- I assume that this program is pretty self selecting as well.

"Or are there simply too many courses one needs to take before one is ready for science grad school?"

There are simply too many math classes one needs to take before one is ready for math grad school too-- that's kind of the point. This program (I can't speak for others) is mostly focused on women who were math majors who didn't intend to go to grad school originally, so took a different course track (like math education), or who had a robust math minor, but missed some fundamentals like analysis. But they all had to have a serious background to be able to get serious benefit in a year.

It's possible to get many of the same things from Big Box U as from cozy box college, but you have to work much harder at it, and some people won't do the work. I'm glad I didn't have to.

Kevin said...

"Women in Mathematics: Scaling the Heights" edited by Deborah Nolan talks about similar programs at other schools (it is not a new idea, but it does seem to work). [Disclaimer: I've only read reviews of the book, not the book itself.]

Whether or not older PhD applicants are discriminated against is mostly a matter of department culture: some are very welcoming of older students, others not. NSF *does* discriminate against re-entry students in awarding NSF graduate fellowships.

I can name an engineering department where 10% of the grad students are over 45.