Women and First Generation in College Struggle More in Ph.D. Programs, Israeli Survey Shows

Women have harder time finishing studies, while first-generation academics have more financial difficulties, according to a survey of some 1,700 students from Israel's seven research institutes

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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Bar Ilan University campus.
Bar Ilan University campus. Credit: Chen Damari /Spokeswoman for Bar Ilan University
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

A survey among Ph.D. students in Israel shows that women and those in the first generation of their families to gain higher education have more difficulties in their doctoral studies, when compared to men and those coming from families with advanced degrees for at least two generations. These gaps bring into sharp relief a multi-year failure in Ph.D. studies in Israel, harming mostly those from marginalized groups, who struggle to realize their academic potential.

The survey was taken of some 1,700 students from the seven research institutes in Israel (Tel Aviv, Hebrew, Ben-Gurion, Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute), and sought to find how to advance equal opportunity in the field. The survey was conducted by Prof. Sigal Alon of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Tel Aviv University, and funded by Yad Hanadiv. She presented the findings last week at a lecture delivered as part of the Maavarim program by Prof. David Levi-Faur, seeking to promote the academic staff and all students.

The most troubling difference in struggles during the doctoral studies period appears to reflect the gender gap. Women clearly expressed greater concern than men at not managing to complete their degree because they are neglecting their children and are forced to give up things on the family front due to their studies; are ashamed to ask questions, to present an argument, or feel that they “don’t belong” in academia to a greater extent than men do. These findings match other studies indicating that women judge themselves more harshly than men.

According to survey responses, the rate of women receiving scholarships is lower than that of men. Similarly, clear differences were found between the genders in response to the question of what factors might prevent them from completing their studies. Women gave higher scores to all challenges presented, from time constraints, financial, academic or family problems, through feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem.

In light of these differences, it is unsurprising that women attested to a lower level of knowledge about career advancement, and that their guidance counselors open fewer opportunities to them – such as the offer to apply for a prestigious scholarship, presence at an academic conference or study abroad. The variety of hardships translates to achievements as well: A woman’s chance of getting a paper published is 60 percent that of a man’s.

Another comparison focused on the differences between first-generation doctoral students and those whose parents, sometimes even grandparents, hold doctoral degrees. According to Alon, this does not refer only to financial and social capital, but also, perhaps mainly, to knowledge of the system – jargon, expectations and proper conduct. These gaps eventually translate to academic achievement gaps. So the chance of first-generation doctoral students to get their Ph.D. is lower than that of second generation students, also due to gaps in preparation from a young age.

First-generation doctoral students reported more financial and employment issues delaying their studies. Further, second-generation students were found to be 1.8 times more likely to be approved for doctoral tracks.

Clear differences were also found in regard to acceptance to post-doctoral programs, gaining qualifications for an academic position, fundraising, applying for a research grant or writing and publishing a paper. They may also impact the chance of receiving scholarships: Second-generation doctoral students enjoy a 1.6 times better chance of receiving one.

Second-generation students are 1.4 times more likely than those of the first generation to send an article for publication. Alon points out that this gravely harms equality of opportunity, with the desire for an academic career stronger among first-generation students. Finally, the findings indicate that due to financial considerations, many first-generation students reach academia too late in life to develop an academic career with the same ease as those who were able to study earlier.

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