Category Archives: Higher Education

Writing a Dissertation: What They Don’t Teach You in Grad School

This blog post describes useful ideas and tools for those working on dissertations and other long writing projects. It is written from the vantage point of historical work, but has much to offer social and psychological science scholars, as well. — Edprof

Erstwhile: A History Blog

IMG_2542 copy.JPG Tools of the dissertation writer’s trade. (All photos author’s own.)

This week Erstwhile editor Sara Porterfield shares what she wished she’d known before starting her dissertation and what she’s learned from the writing process. 

Until it came time to write my dissertation, graduate school kept me on a schedule with measurable goals and milestones around which I could structure my days and schedule. Once I defended my dissertation prospectus, however, that structure disappeared. All of a sudden I found myself faced with what seemed like an almost insurmountable task—writing what is essentially a book—that my training hadn’t really prepared me for. Yes, I knew how to research in the archives; yes, I knew how to write a well-crafted and convincingly argued seminar paper. But I didn’t know how to put together an argument over 300 pages, or even what tools to use for researching and writing such a project.

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Tips for Social and Psychological Researchers

4researcher.org — provides a variety of resources for researchers aimed at fostering career success.  The site promises “practical advice for working researchers.”   Created by the 3-C Institute for Social Development in Cary, North Carolina.  Worth a look!   — EdProf

Mystery of Missing Women in Science

The New York Times has published a series of articles and commentaries on the relatively small number of women and girls who pursue scientific careers.  This September 3, 2013 article offers an overview of the problem and some of its possible origins.

Mystery of the Missing Women in Science
Female students are catching up or surpassing male counterparts in math and science, yet the fields like engineering and computer science remain male dominated.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/science/mystery-of-the-missing-women-in-science.html?smid=pl-share

The article’s author, Natalie Angier, notes that whereas girls and boys are similar with respect to competence in math and science, boys express intent to pursue technical careers in greater numbers than do girls.  Women are attracted to, or at least wind up in education and healthcare fields, where salaries are lower than in science and engineering.  The reasons for all this are complex and not well understood.  To her credit, Angier acknowledges that understanding girls’ disinterest in technical careers requires a consideration of both psychological and contextual factors.  She observes,
In seeking to explain girls’ persistent aversion to science, researchers argue that standard surveys won’t reveal hidden impulses or negative thoughts. People may say they consider women the equals of men, but as Jo Handelsman and her colleagues at Yale University reported last year, simply substituting the name Jennifer for John lowered both men’s and women’s estimation of an aspiring scientist’s résumé.
Small details can have serious consequences. Women do worse on standardized math tests when asked to indicate their sex. When they are told men and women do equally well on such tests, their performance improves. Students show greater gains when they are taught that the mind, like a muscle, gets stronger with work, as opposed to being told that talents are fixed and you’re born either quick or slow.
Writing about “Women and the Maths Problem” in 2012, Helen Powell proposed that the explanation may lie not in the adverse effects of “stereotype threat,” but in the fact that girls think that mathematics is boring.
New York based author Emma Keller provided a blog post on “Gender and Science: Why the Gender Gap Persists and What to Do About It”  that provides some suggestions for those who want to help their daughters develop and maintain their enthusiasm for mathematics and science.

Women and Leadership: The Quest for Self-Confidence

A New York Times article last fall reported on the persistence of gender bias in the sciences.  A byproduct of differential experiences in the sciences is that they may undermine women’s confidence.  As a consequence, women in the sciences may be less likely to pursue opportunities for advancement within their institutions.  (see Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds)

In the widely read Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg (2013) discussed the challenges women face as they strive to “sit at the table” — play leadership roles in complex organizations.  In Chapter 2, she noted that “even now, I am a long way from mastering the art of feeling confident” (p. 37).  She concluded the chapter with the following observations:

No one accomplishes anything all alone.

But I also know that in order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities.  I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities.  I still have days when I feel like a fraud.  And I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not.  But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up.  I have learned to sit at the table. (p. 38)

Sandberg’s book offered a host of documented examples of the barriers women still face today as they attempt to climb up the corporate ladder (or jungle gym, her more useful metaphor!).  I think the popularity of the book highlights a perceived recognition that many of us long for words of advice and encouragement, along with fresh new images of women as leaders.

Another recent New York Times article spotlighted Elizabeth H. Blackburn who, with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, won the 2009 Nobel Prize for ground-breaking work on telomeres (see Charting Her Own Course).  Her recent work promises to shed important light not only on the relationship between stress, DNA and mortality, but to offer potentially very powerful biomedical applications that could transform the practice of medicine.  She clearly has earned a “seat at the table” as a scientist.  With respect to the theme of “confidence,” the following quote from Blackburn warrants attention.  Describing her more recent interdisciplinary research activities beyond the laboratory, she stated

I would have been a little afraid to do things, because my male colleagues wouldn’t have taken me seriously as a molecular biologist…[But now] Being senior enough in the field, having enough solidity, I don’t feel afraid of being marginalized” (2013, D6)

One wonders how many very capable women have not been able to pursue new directions in their work, given the long road many face to achieve seniority and therefore security (and perhaps “self-confidence”) in their fields.

In a related vein:  At my own institution, a new group — the Women’s Faculty Caucus — has formed to discuss issues of particular concern to faculty women.  This lively group has organized several business meetings and social gatherings.  Similar groups meet at other institutions.  This might be a good day to see what resources are available in your own organization.  Just as bias, isolation and marginalization erode self-confidence, collaboration with like-minded others has the potential to strengthen it. – EdProf

References

New York Times, September 24, 2012

Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds

Science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than students with the same accomplishments and skills, a new study by researchers at Yale concluded.

New York Times, April 9, 2013

Charting Her Own Course

A Nobel-winning molecular biologist explores the connections of emotional stress, health and DNA.

Sandberg, Sheryl (2013). Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead.  New York: Alfred Knopf (written with Nel Scovell).

Further reading

Maitlin, M. W. (2012). The psychology of women.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.  [See pages 164 – 168 for a straightforward discussion of gender differences in self-confidence.  Recommended readings cited on page 171.]

Formal-Operational vs. Post-Formal Thinking: Brains Grow Up

Here is a reblogged essay from the Classroom as Microcosm Blog written by irrepressible and indomitable college teacher, “Siobhan Curious.”   It explores one aspect of early adult development: the growth of postformal thought.

Formal-Operational vs. Post-Formal Thinking: Brains Grow Up « Classroom as Microcosm.

I have written about emerging adulthood (and academic versus authentic writing) in another post.  If you are looking for additional reading on this topic, scroll down to references at the end of my first “Diary of an Ed Prof” essay.   — Ed Prof

The Condition of Education

 

Protesting Against Education Budget Cuts
Protesting Against Education Budget Cuts (Photo credit: infomatique)

My previous post noted that tuition pays only a small portion of the cost of higher education in public colleges and universities.  According to this year’s Condition of Education report, in 2009 – 2010, tuition accounted for about 16 – 18 percent of the total revenue of  public postsecondary institutions (and 90% of private, for-profit post-secondary institutions).  The Condition of Education is a report mandated by the United States federal government and published each year by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).  The report is available for download at no charge and contains a wealth of information about educational institutions at all levels, including elementary and secondary, postsecondary, public, private non-profit and private, for-profit institutions.  This is a rich, detailed, well-organized and trustworthy analysis of massive amounts of data that can be very useful for academic research and writing projects.

Here are a few direct quotes that reflect current conditions and changing trends in higher education (from the 2012 Condition of Education Overview).  A useful and informative resource:

In 2009–10, more than half of the 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees awarded were in five fields: business, management, marketing, and personal and culinary services (22 percent); social sciences and history (10 percent); health professions and related programs (8 percent); education (6 percent); and psychology (6 percent) (indicator 38).

Approximately 56 percent of male and 61 percent of female first-time, full-time students who sought a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2004 completed their degree at that institution within 6 years (indicator 45).

In 2011, some 32 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. From 1980 to 2011, the gap in the attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher between Whites and Hispanics widened from 17 to 26 percentage points, and the gap between Whites and Blacks widened from 13 to 19 percentage points (indicator 48).

In 2010, young adults ages 25–34 with a bachelor’s degree earned 114 percent more than young adults without a high school diploma or its equivalent, 50 percent more than young adult high school completers, and 22 percent more than young adults with an associate’s degree (indicator 49).

Sources

The Condition of Education — Index  — http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/  [The 2012 report and related information can be downloaded from this site.  An ebook of the report is also available.]

The Condition of Education — Overview, Section 3 – Postsecondary Education and Outcomes — http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/overview.asp

The Condition of Education — Postsecondary Revenueshttp://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_prs.asp

Caring (Against the Odds)

Ponderosa pine treeAs the end of the semester drew near, I fretted about a student or two who had done quite well for most of the semester, then drifted off course, and finally disappeared without a trace.  As I tried to work this problem — figure out how to get my lost students to talk to me, two people asked me (with unveiled cynicism):  “Why should you care more about students’ grades than they do?”

That’s a good question, though it is based on somewhat faulty premises.  Most students do care about the grades that they get, and they also care about what they have learned in a course — or so it seems to me.  When otherwise capable students disappear, there is usually some explanation.  For some reason, though, given the strains of early adulthood and the fact that many first-generation students do not know how the system works, students just “log off” instead of asking their professors for help.  They assume that nothing can be done and there are no options, and no one cares anyway, so (as one of my students put it) “I thought I might as well just take the F and deal with it later.”

As a professor, one of my responsibilities is to evaluate student performance. Disappearing students, by academic convention, get an “F” (failing) grade for the course.  Alternatively, though, they could receive a “W, WP, WF” (withdrawal) or in some cases, or an “I” (incomplete, with the option of completing work within an agreed-upon time period).  From my vantage point as a college teacher, getting an “F” might have long range consequences that should only be borne if the grade is really warranted and there are no other alternatives.  So, in answer to the question above, here is another question: Why let talented students “give up” and “take their punishment” without at least trying to persuade them otherwise?  Will students be “wrecked for life” because someone inside the Machine cared about their long-term best interests?  And from a public resource perspective, courses retaken must be paid for again, and society always pays part of the bill.  As high as they are, tuition fees cover only part of the cost of higher education.  This means that re-taking courses always requires expenditure of public resources we cannot afford to waste.   –EdProf