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Alumnae Survey

Looking Back: A Retrospective Study of Dartmouth Science Alumnae, 1973-96

In 1997, the Women in Science Project (WISP) embarked on a major research effort, the Dartmouth Women in Science Alumnae Survey, as part of a broader Alumnae Connections initiative with grant support from the AT&T Foundation. Alumnae Connections began as a modest effort to track down Dartmouth women who majored in science, math, and engineering and to develop an electronic alumnae network. Inspired by Wellesley's landmark Pathways Report (Rayman and Brett, 1993) which discovered 36% attrition from science by Wellesley alumnae, and in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of coeducation at Dartmouth, WISP set out to learn about the postgraduate experiences and perspectives of Dartmouth alumnae in the sciences.

The survey was designed as a retrospective study to learn how Dartmouth women viewed their undergraduate experiences in the sciences and what factors positively influenced them to continue in science beyond Dartmouth. The focus was on women in the twenty-four graduating classes of 1973 through 1996 who majored in science, math, and engineering while at Dartmouth. The three major research questions for the study were:

  • Did these women continue in the sciences after graduating from Dartmouth?
  • What factors in their college experience encouraged or discouraged them in their pursuit of careers and advanced studies in the sciences?
  • What recommendations do alumnae have to best prepare women in science?

In August 1998, the five-page survey containing both multiple choice and open-ended questions was mailed to 1,308 Dartmouth alumnae. In addition, respondents were notified that an electronic version of the survey was available on the web. A total of 724 women responded to the survey (43% electronically) for a 55% response rate.

External evaluation consultant, Dr. Cynthia A. Char, served as the principal investigator for the study.

Highlights of Findings

  • A substantial majority of respondents (80%) reported that their current or most recent job was in the sciences, while 20% reported being in the nonsciences. Most were in health care and medicine (31%), followed by math and computer science (17%), and life sciences (13%). Almost one-half (45%) of the respondents felt that their current or most recent job related very much to their undergraduate training in the sciences.
  • 81% of respondents were currently employed.
  • 72% of respondents went on to receive postgraduate degrees. Of those, 39% obtained doctoral degrees, while 33% attained masters' degrees as their highest level of graduate training.
  • 28% of respondents offered reasons why they did not pursue careers in the sciences or were strongly considering leaving the field. Over one-half of these women graduated in the eighties (i.e., out of college for 9 to 19 years). Their reasons for leaving science careers included:
    • The advantages of non science careers and/or concerns with science careers,
    • The sense of one's own interests and abilities, and
    • The formative experiences in college, graduate school or the workplace.

Most areas of women's undergraduate experiences were seen as positive influences on their interest and/or desire to pursue a career in the sciences. Areas rated as most positive included:

  • Upper level science course content and instruction
  • Pre-professional work/internships
  • Undergraduate research opportunities
  • Four of the five WISP activities (research internships, peer mentoring program, industrial electronic mentoring program, and special events)
  • Informal peer support
  • Relationships with faculty

Areas which received less positive ratings included:

  • Introductory science course content and instruction
  • Lab work for courses
  • Colloquia and speakers
  • Major advising
  • Academic skills support
  • WISP electronic newsletter

Areas rated as somewhat negative influences included:

  • Pre-major advising
  • Career counseling

Respondents offered a total of 3,533 comments describing the most positive and negative aspects of their undergraduate experiences in the sciences. These open-ended responses were then coded into categories for analysis. The majority of comments regarding course work (59%), informal advising (67%), and institutional structure (63%) were cited as positive. Upper level courses were viewed more favorably than introductory courses and respondents spoke positively about the quality of faculty. Respondents were emphatic about the importance of mentoring and informal peer group support and study groups. The vast majority of comments regarding out-of-classroom learning opportunities were also cited as positive (85%) in linking academic skills and knowledge with real world problems, future careers and/or ongoing research in the sciences. The clear majority of comments described as "gender-related issues" were described as negative influences (63%) with comments often focusing on the small number of female students in particular science classes and the limited number of women science faculty. In contrast, the majority of the comments specifically referring to WISP were cited as positive (83%) in providing important research opportunities, information, and support. Comments concerning formal advising, such as pre-major and major advising, and career counseling, were mentioned less frequently and, when mentioned, were overwhelmingly considered a negative influence (85%). A number of respondents described a general lack of contact with both first year and major advisors and the over-emphasis in career services on academic research and medical careers.

Alumnae offered a total of 1,147 comments conveying advice, insights, and recommendations on how to best prepare Dartmouth female undergraduates in science. Over one-fourth of all alumnae recommendations specifically concerned women's issues and perspectives (28%), including the value of WISP. Recommendations included employing more high quality female faculty in the sciences, more access to female professionals in a wide variety of science careers, raising awareness of the particular challenges and techniques for being successful in predominantly male science fields, and learning how to balance science careers with personal and family needs. Two-thirds of all alumnae recommendations were comprised of four different categories: coursework (16%), out-of-classroom learning opportunities (14%), mentoring (16%), and formal advising (18%). Respondents recommended that courses have a greater emphasis upon hands-on, applied approaches that incorporated more projects and teamwork with stronger interdisciplinary connections. In addition, they recommended that students participate in out-of-classroom learning opportunities with faculty and other professionals (e.g., field-based courses, internships, and research) and that academic advising and career counseling be improved for all students.

Looking Back: A Retrospective Study of Dartmouth Science Alumnae documents the undergraduate and postgraduate experience of Dartmouth women in science and sheds light on many of the complex issues women face as they map out a career path for themselves. Purposely broad in nature, the study elucidates how many aspects of the undergraduate experience significantly influence the decision to continue in the sciences both during college and following graduation. While individual women offered different experiences and perspectives, their views were fairly consistent across the three decades of graduating classes.

In many respects, the women participating in the study have already proven themselves to be highly successful in the sciences. The majority (79%) entered Dartmouth intending to major in the sciences. They persevered and graduated with a major in the sciences, and the vast majority (80%) have remained in the sciences since college graduation, anywhere from two to twenty-three years. At the same time, they expressed how such a "science pathway" has not necessarily been easy. These women emphasized the importance of faculty support and mentoring, both in and out of the classroom, in providing role models and guidance for students contemplating careers in the sciences. They also emphasized the value of opportunities which broaden students' awareness of science careers beyond academia and medicine and the need for greater coordination between faculty advising, research and internship opportunities, career counseling, and academic advising.

This report provides substantial insight into the experiences of Dartmouth College science alumnae and provides food for thought on how to best prepare women in science in the future. Many of the findings validate what the Women in Science Project has been providing in terms of mentoring, role models, and undergraduate research opportunities for the last ten years. Though focused on women in science, the findings in this report can be used to enhance undergraduate science teaching practices, program development, and student services for the broader population as well.

Last Updated: 9/28/11