Mentorship is Critical to Success
University physics courses have a gender problem, with only around 20% of undergraduate and graduate degrees going to women. For astronomy courses—a close scientific sibling of physics—there is less of an imbalance, with women receiving one third of the field’s undergraduate degrees and 40% of Ph.D.s. Wanting to better understand the experiences of women in astronomy—a problem that has received limited study compared to the experiences of women in physics—Ramón Barthelemy, from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and colleagues spoke to women astronomers undertaking graduate degrees. They found that having multiple routes for support and guidance—such as mentorship from peers, postdocs, and faculty, and advice on careers beyond academia—were key in bolstering the women’s education.
Barthelemy and his colleagues conducted face-to-face interviews with five women in the same astronomy program. The interviews were designed to uncover supportive experiences and included questions such as “Tell me about your relationship with the professors in your classroom,” and “How often did you meet with your advisor?” The transcribed interviews were then analyzed to uncover common themes.
The team found that mentorship was crucial for keeping the women in the program, with support from peers aiding success in passing Ph.D. qualifying exams and guidance from postdocs and faculty ensuring that research goals were met. Another key theme was careers and the importance that the women’s advisors understood that careers are not one-size-fits-all.
Barthelemy notes that the conclusions are not generalizable because of the study’s limited size. However, the results add to a growing body of evidence that highlights the importance of mentorship and of recognizing that graduate educations can lead to careers beyond academia.
This research is published in Physical Review Physics Education Research.
Katherine Wright is a Senior Editor for Physics.