women in science and breadth

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at cco.caltech.edu
Wed Jan 24 14:31:55 EST 1996

In article <kh11-2301962209310001 at>,
Kathie T. Hodge <kh11 at cornell.edu> wrote:
>I found an interesting web site this evening on women as scientists over
>the last 4000(!) years:
>A paragraph in their Introduction touched a nerve:
>> Today we define a scientist as someone who usually has a Ph.D. and works 
>> in a technical field. This person is a specialist in a narrow field of 
>> research, and often is well trained in only that field. Today's Ph.D. 
>> shows special aptitude and creativity in a particular discipline and 
>> rarely shows the same talent outside that discipline.
>There has been a lot of lip service lately about "narrowness" versus
>"breadth" of education--people within my earshot are talking about the
>need to train grad. students more broadly.  It sounds good to me, but I
>wonder how these students would fare when seeking a job.
>Do any of you have any thoughts about how a job candidate with a shallower
>knowledge of many subjects (and, presumably, a smaller and perhaps less
>significant dissertation) would fare relative to one with a tight focus in
>today's job market?
>Kathie Hodge
>kh11 at cornell.edu
>PhD candidate


This is difficult to write clearly, but I'll give it a shot.  I think the
expectations of a Ph.D. are in transiton.  As you point out, there is "lip
service" given to the value of a broad education nowadays, but there seem
to be people with attitudes left from a former system, in which there was
a high value placed on certain definitions of "commitment."  From the
perspective we are coming from today, this definition of "commitment" could
easily be viewed to include "narrowness."  A friend who is about 10 years
older than I am (he's about 39) says that when he was going through the
system there were a significant number of grad student hopefuls who used
graduate school as a medical school "backup," then when they got into medical
school, they just dropped out, thereby "wasting" all the time and effort and
money that had been invested in them.  Schools thus became very interested
in "commitment" such that outside interests were viewed with suspicion,
because a student might leave science to pursue these outside interests and
waste the school's resources and time.  I regard my friend's perspective
as interesting, but not particularly germane to today's Ph.D. market.  I
have never seen a case of a student using graduate school as a "back up" to
other interests--it's too hard, the pay is too low, and it takes too long. 
Not to mention that the payoff at the end is too uncertain to make going 
to graduate school a reasonable backup career.  
    But on the other hand, it does happen every now and then that a student
will leave graduate school to pursue "other interests"--I personally think
this is often a good and necessary choice for that person to have made, but
some among the school administration still may see the admission of that
student and the time and resources spent on him or her as a "waste."  
In this era of shrinking budgets and fewer resources, this attitude is 
unlikely to go away completely.  I think its continued persistence is
bad for everyone.  This kind of thinking was used against women for years:
"they can't pursue a career/professional school/graduate training/etc.etc.
They'll just get married and get pregnant and drop out, and all the effort
spent on them will be a waste."  Ugh.

Just my 0.02,


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