Exaggerating the typical and stereotyping the differences: Isolation experienced by women in STEM doctoral programs

Natalie Fabert, Marilyn Cabay, Melissa B. Rivers, Mary Lee Smith, Bianca Bernstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


This paper describes the initial results of a qualitative, longitudinal study designed to understand how career and educational choices unfold for women in graduate school over the course of an entire academic year. Participants recruited from private and public research universities across the U.S. submitted Internet journal entries (blogs) and/or were interviewed biweekly during fall and spring semesters. Ethnographic techniques1 were employed to elicit details of concrete incidents. Constant comparative analysis2 was used for understanding journal entries and interview transcripts. A common experience among participants in both components of the study was "feeling different" from an implied institutional norm, according to preliminary results. Students sometimes self-isolated in order to meet a perceived need to present themselves as capable and as "fitting in" with the institutional norm implied in competitive departmental climates. Reliance on remote communication provided by advanced technology as well as the process of academic specialization are also related to the isolation experienced by the women participants. In the absence of the buffering aspects of social integration,3 discouraging incidents led students to question their competence, their "fit" in the institution and by association, the profession and future aspirations. The paper further explains how the process of academic and social isolation unfolds and is negotiated over the course of doctoral studies, as reported by the participants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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