The excerpt below is from THE WOMAN'S GUIDE TO NAVIGATING THE PH.D. IN ENGINEERING & SCIENCE, by Barbara B. Lazarus, Lisa M. Ritter, and Susan A. Ambrose. Copyright, © 2001, IEEE Press, reprinted with permission. It is designed to help women doctoral students survive and thrive in graduate school. Much of the book is useful to graduate students in all fields. The unique nature of the graduate school learning process and how we can all deal effectively with it is the subject of the excerpt below.

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs


* Why We Hate It

* What You Can Do

* Learning How "Not" to Be a "Nice" Girl

* Tips for Negotiation

As an undergraduate, the method of learning was probably something like this: your professor lectured on a series of topics on which you were later tested. Whether there was little or a lot of discussion about the material, the lesson was clearly defined. Your professor had certain objectives she or he wanted to cover, and the material was chosen to illustrate definitive points. You were learning existing knowledge.

In graduate school, the method of learning is very different - and difficult for a number of women. At first, your classes will seem like those in college - you'll study and learn an existing body of knowledge. However, the ultimate goal of attending these classes is to help you search out questions and define your research interests - not to specifically "learn" a lesson.

As you progress in your graduate work, most of your learning will come through a series of formal and informal exchanges in which others, both faculty and peers, will challenge and test your ideas. As your research progresses, you will be expected to share and discuss your findings with others. If you haven't already encountered questioning of this sort, imagine how novice lawyers are trained. We've all seen and heard about law professors "grilling" their students on case law. Although the questioning may be intense, the professor is really trying to test the student's analytical, reasoning, and communication skills.


Many women perceive insistent questioning as harsh and negative, or as a personal attack. They may feel particularly uncomfortable with situations in which their understanding is continually challenged. Women may feel vulnerable as a result of stereotypes portraying them as "dumb," or they may lack the confidence and self-esteem necessary to handle intense inquiry. By asking questions and continually challenging their reasoning, many women feel that a professor is commenting on their intelligence or worthiness as graduate students. Some report feeling strange or unworthy for asking "too many questions" or for presenting new ideas.

Although some women can positively respond to learning through critique, many internalized the criticism. Conversely, professors may believe that they are pushing a student to explore new areas and to think independently. However, a female student lacking in confidence may only hear, "you're wrong and you don't belong here."

The nature of learning through critique - which is at the core of the graduate school experience - lends itself to another problem that is closely related to internalizing criticism. Although you are learning to test and evaluate your own ideas, there are very few rules to guide your progress. An idea is not perfect the first time around - learning to be an original thinker takes a lot of trial and error. Once you begin to understand the nature of original research, you'll come to understand the tenuous nature of knowledge. Many "right answers" change over time.


Self-esteem and socialization are the root of many women's difficulty in dealing with new methods of learning in graduate school. Although problems like these are not going to be solved overnight, there are steps you can take to make your experience more rewarding and satisfying.

Hints on feeling Confident:

* Set realistic goals. You are not going to know everything the minute you start graduate school. Why put that kind of pressure on yourself? Remember, you're here to learn.

* Recognize that many things can only be learned through trial and error. You will make mistakes, you will be embarrassed once in a while - it happens to everyone! When you make mistakes, focus on what you can and did learn from it. If at first you don't succeed....

* Talk to others about your experience. Older and more experienced graduate students, faculty members, counselors - they all understand what you're going through and many of them have already been there.

* Realize that you can never be completely prepared for everything. You may think because you're a graduate student in a prestigious university, you should automatically know what's going on at all times. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on women, especially women in science and engineering, to prove themselves. Go ahead with your work, and if you find you're lacking in a certain area, do what you need to improve. Don't judge yourself too harshly.

* Ask for what you want. Your professors are there to help you - they aren't out to get you, no matter how it may seem. Realize, however, that some of your superiors may be oblivious to your concerns and may forget how it feels to be critically evaluated.

* Negative feedback does not always mean that you are wrong. Try to evaluate the comments on your work objectively, and then make a rational decision about whether or not to open a discussion or a debate. This is important. Some criticism is wrong; in general, criticism is usually opinion. Learn to evaluate criticism (opinion) and decide if it's valued. Just because it was said by a faculty member doesn't make it right! Women are more likely than men to believe that negative feedback is justified and keep quiet. Don't internalize criticism.

* Feed your self-esteem bank. Remember those times when you have asked the "right" question or solved a difficult problem. You'll soon realize you have what it takes to make it. Remember your successes.

* Remember that time will help you feel more confident. As a first- or second- year Ph.D. candidate, it's difficult not to feel hopelessly clueless. As you define your interests and begin work on your own research project, you will undoubtedly develop a stronger sense of yourself and your own abilities. Take one day at a time.


You're certainly at least as smart as the guys in your classes, but the testosterone levels that your male peers boast may be serving to make your playing field a bit bumpy.

The first difference between you and the guys is that you probably argue differently - and that may give them an edge.

A 1990 study showed that women are more concerned than men about damage that an argument might cause in an interpersonal relationship. In general, men who argue are regarded as "rational," while women who argue are deemed "disagreeable." Therefore, in fields where argument is necessary, women are at a disadvantage when dealing with male peers.

This gender difference (whether true for an individual or perceived true by others) can also prove to be a disadvantage in working with a male advisor. If a male advisor believes that women may react more "emotionally" to criticism, he may not give her the feedback she needs to make her work better. And so the female student is denied an advantage that the male student is not, through no fault of her own (Mapstone, 1990).

Nancy Hutson, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology and is vice president of Strategic Management for the Central Research Division of Pfizer Inc., cautions:

Make no mistake, sex and gender are not the same. Sex is genetically determined, universal, and unchanging. Gender represents those behaviors taught by society and that therefore differ from culture to culture. To a very real extent, our society still mandates that women should be distinct in their behavior from men: more passive, less competitive, and less aggressive. So the first thing we must do is break loose from our gender restraints and instead, listen to our inner voice. Science, by its very nature, demands confidence, assertiveness, and a competitive streak that will give one to be the first to make and report an observation.


From "Women Drivers" in (Cecily Cannan Selby, ed) Women in Science and Engineering: Choices for Success (1999).


Another difference you may have noticed is that guys tend to be "pushier" when it comes to taking over experiments, using the computers, or speaking up in class. But this is not always the case, and even if it is certainly behavior that women can learn and employ as well. The stories on the previous page illustrate how some women see learning to be "bossy" as simply another skill to master along with their studies.


Negotiating is a critical skill that you will need from your first day of graduate school on into your career. In her article "Negotiation Advice for Women: How Not to Lose Your Skirt" (Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession Newsletter, Winter 1999), economics professor Linda Babcoak presents an interesting argument that women don't adopt inferior (negotiating) tactics, but don't recognize opportunities for negotiating."

Babcock suggests these opportunities for negotiation:

1. Recognize opportunities for negotiation. Don't accept everything as the status quo, but identify less-than-optimum situations as opportunities to negotiate. For example, Ph.D. student wasn't defending until the end of the summer but had wanted to go through the spring graduation ceremony with her classmates. She was disappointed because two male colleagues who also had not yet defended had gotten to go through the ceremony. The problem was she had not asked, but the male students had.

2. Overcome anxiety over negotiating. Babcock asserts that "women tend to view the conflict inherent in negotiating as jeopardizing" the relationships they have with the person with whom they will negotiate. Men, however, see the relationship and the negotiation as independent of each other. She suggests viewing negotiation as "an accepted and expected activity" that can be done while maintaining one's relationship with the other party.

3. Be sure of what you want to get out of the negotiation. Before you enter into any negotiation, be clear on what goals you are trying to achieve and what is the minimum you will accept. At the same time, be assertive, yet creative.

4. Don't view negotiations as win/lose. The "variable-sum" way women typically view negotiations, says Babcock, is a strength that they have over men, who tend to view negotiations as "zero-sum." Women bring a "more cooperative and problem-solving approach and a willingness to understand the interests of the other side to the bargaining table."



Associate Provost for Academic Affairs

Adjunct Professor of Education Anthropology

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA


Communications Consultant

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA


Associate Provost for Educational Development

Director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence

Principal Lecturer, Department of History

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA