Women are as ambitious as men in pursuing success in graduate school. Women and men demonstrate their ambition in their day-to-day persistence, interest, and intellectual contributions, which are changing the face of graduate education. Even though the graduate community is more enlightened than ever about the benefits of having both sexes well represented in teaching and research, it is still working to transform the traditionally male-centered structure of advanced study.
When sexism and other unconscious biases surface, women graduate students may experience the negative effects more pointedly, although men also report negative effects. For this reason, while students share many concerns about academic interactions, women express some concerns that differ from those of men.
The unspoken code in graduate education is that, aside from being intelligent, students who are assertive in classroom discussions or conference presentations attain success. However, students from marginalized groups often demonstrate a different approach to academic interactions. Many women and racial minorities, and even international students, express concern about difficulties they experience making their contributions heard. For example, in classroom discussions, women have noted that to contribute an idea, often they have to interrupt another student. They tend to interpret interruptions as rude and disrespectful, yet fear that professors and peers will wrongly attribute lack of participation to having no ideas at all. Many women report that when they do assert their ideas strongly, they feel subjected to criticism in ways their male counterparts are not — even though the assertive behavior is the same.
Research has shown that an overly competitive and critical atmosphere in graduate programs can alienate minority students, and that women, in particular, feel such alienation more intensely. There is no doubt that women are capable of providing insightful criticisms of others' work when warranted. But some interpret critical behavior as an attempt to appear intellectually superior, and thus as a form of insecurity. Women, and indeed a growing number of students in general, lament that the system does not reward one for praising the contributions of other scholars. More opportunities for collaborative work would help balance the competitive culture of graduate school.
Many students desire to receive frequent constructive feedback on their work. Although lack of feedback is problematic in its own right, the lack of constructive feedback can lead students to doubt their capabilities. Women tend to attribute negative experiences in graduate school to personal deficiencies, whereas men tend to attribute them to insufficient guidance or problems within the department. Regarding their mentor's personal style, men are more content than women with mentors who may be impersonal but offer solid instrumental advice. Women may interpret a professor's distance as an indication that he or she has a negative opinion of them. Studies suggest that these nuances hold true for racial minorities as well.