Recently, I was rummaging through some databases involving doctoral completion rates in different fields of Science and Engineering. Specifically, I was looking at doctoral completion rates for male and female students. Of course I know that graduate school is part of the "leaky pipeline" for women scientists in academia, but I'd always assumed that women choosing to do an MS and not continuing on for a PhD was a much more significant "leak" than female PhD students leaving a doctoral program with an MS.
It is likely more significant, but I was surprised at some of the data showing the % of women doctoral students who "leave with an MS". In fact, for some programs, most of the women who start a doctoral program leave with an MS. The fact that they started a doctoral program indicates that these women were at some point interested in doing PhD-level research.
The usual explanations for leaks at this stage invoke the fact that graduate studies fall at a critical time for many young women because of the stresses and choices involving work and family. This may well be a good explanation for much of the "leaving with an MS" phenomenon, but it's too general to allow advisors, departments, and institutions to understand the data and determine what, if any, changes should be made.
From these data, we don't know how many of these women:
1. left and did a PhD elsewhere;
2. switched to the MS voluntarily because it was a better fit for their career goals;
3. switched to the MS involuntarily owing to (a) life or work pressures, or (b) an academic problem (exams, classes, advisors).
Explanation #1 does not involve a pipeline leak; it's just appears to be one for any particular institution.
Explanation #2 is technically a leak, but if these MS graduates continue on with a career relevant to their graduate studies (because that's what they want to do), it's not a tragic leak. Overall, it's not good that there are so few women faculty in physical sciences, engineering, and math at research universities, but each individual woman needs to make the best decision for herself in the context of life and career issues.
Explanation #3 is more problematic, but the databases provide no insight into how many women are given an MS "consolation prize" after failing a PhD preliminary exam (and whether more women than men fail these exams) and how many women leave doctoral program with an MS because they can't (or don't think they can) get a PhD and start a family at the same time. A sub-category of the latter is of the "there could only be one PhD in the family, so we decided it should be Robert" sort.
To the extent that the "left with an MS" situation is a problem that needs solving, it's likely that it can only be solved at a very large scale (i.e., by changes in society and academia as a whole). Even so, what I want to know is: What, if anything, can individual faculty and departments and universities do?
At this point, with the tools at hand, we can at least do exit surveys in each department to find out why doctoral students leave with an MS (voluntarily or involuntarily), and, based on results:
- address any issues that relate to a discrepancy in how female graduate students are evaluated and advised, or
- use these data as a basis for instituting family-friendly policies that alleviate some of the problems that disproportionately affect female graduate students (keeping in mind that these policies need to minimize harm to advisors and research groups as well, or the policies are unlikely to be as effective as they could be for all concerned).
I am sure some (many?) departments do this type of evaluation already, and I'd be curious to know if the results have led to any structural changes in graduate programs, and if these changes had any effect on doctoral completion rates.
6 months ago