The Context

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to recognize how the environment influences communication.
  • Learn to develop awareness of how disciplinary and departmental factors impact the context in which you communicate.
  • Learn to consider how your memberships in intersecting contexts can influence how you experience an environment.


“Priority is a function of context.”
—Steven R. Covey

“To know an object is to lead to it through a context which the world provides.”
—William James


Communication theorists often speak about the term “context.” The context of your communication refers to the environment in which you communicate, and the circumstances surrounding your message. How your message is interpreted can vary, based upon the context in which your message is conveyed. Contexts can be made up of multiple factors. Some examples of contextual factors relevant to you may include your department and its norms and expectations, the implicit or tacit knowledge central to your field of study, and any other characteristics of the enveloping environment that influence the communication you have with your advisor, faculty, and colleagues.


The context is relevant __________________

The best answer is “c”: “at all times”. While “a” considers occurrences in one’s surroundings, context influences far more than the physical environment. Although context is certainly relevant when you experience something negative like sexism, (answer “b”), it also applies to how women are viewed in a discipline, which can also be positive (e. g., as being unusually driven). Answer “d” doesn’t capture the whole picture because context may also be relevant when considering how you want to present yourself, which may not be related to anyone in particular, but instead is related to an overall “brand” you want to be known for (such as, the “technology expert”).

How Context Affects You

In higher education, the environmental contexts in which you interact with others range from formal (e.g., a classroom) to informal (e.g., the common area outside of your building), academic (e.g., a research conference) to social (e.g., a party at a professor’s home), or any combination thereof (e.g., your office at any given moment)1 . The extent to which you experience these contexts as supportive or challenging to your sense of belonging, both academically and socially, directly affects your comfort and motivation to continue2, 3 . Further, if you belong to a minority group, you might find it even more difficult to feel integrated in the academic or social life of your department4, 5 .

Understanding Your Department and Discipline

Your chosen field of study undoubtedly has contextual features that differ from other fields (even other STEM disciplines) and these may influence your communication interactions. For example, your graduate experience might differ from others’ in ways that include:

  • Opportunities for students who are self-financing vs. working for funding (RAs, TAs) vs. granted fellowships6, 7, 8
  • Availability and provision of office space6, 7, 8
  • Expectations for your terminal degree to be a master’s or doctoral degree
  • Processes for coursework, qualifying exams, or final projects6

Additionally, consider the following variables and how they impact the context in which you work:

  • Types of data/experimentation considered valuable
  • Level or type of collegiality or competition
  • Increased feelings of “imposter syndrome” (feeling that you don’t belong with or aren’t as accomplished as others in your program/field—that you somehow got to where you are falsely or by accident, and don’t deserve to be there) in the most competitive fields
  • Degree to which your discipline is considered “nerdy”
  • Interdisciplinary preferences in a fiercely uni-disciplinary department
  • Emphasis on research when you love teaching
  • Preference for certain types of research over others, including:
    • Experimental vs. theoretical
    • Practical vs. analytical
    • Autonomous vs. collaborative

    When considering how the context of your discipline or department facilitates your sense of belonging or integration, don’t become discouraged if your sense of belonging is not as strong as you would like. The differences you bring with you expand the discipline9 and help reshape the context in which you pursue your specific degree. The prevailing norms and climate of your department or discipline, as well as what faculty in your field expect of graduate students, are also important aspects of the context. Recognizing and understanding the elements of the immediate context in which your communication exchange occurs will help you anticipate how others see you and identify barriers in order to optimize your communication.

The Intersection of “You” and Multiple Contexts

Every woman experiences graduate school differently based on personal characteristics that she brings into the environment (e.g., age, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, disability status, and sexual orientation) [See You]; however, women in STEM fields share the common contextual factors that shape the experience of being a woman and pursuing a graduate degree in a male-dominated discipline. Given the disproportionate number of women to men in engineering disciplines10 , you are most likely a numerical minority in your department. If you are also a member of a racial or ethnic group that is underrepresented in your department, you may see yourself, or be perceived as, that much more unique. At all levels, these memberships and contexts intersect with each other11 and most likely magnify your presence as a female doctoral student in a male-dominated STEM discipline. The interaction between these personal characteristics and the environment can be a powerful element in how you experience your program and the field as a whole.

Conflicting Contexts and Memberships

Sometimes, how others interact with you in any given situation, or how you respond, may have more to do with how people perceive you as a member of a certain group than with the aspects of your identity that you consider salient -- and the tendency to do this may also vary by context. For example, in a department where recruitment of women is particularly important for funding purposes, your identity as a woman may be more emphasized than you see relevant by those in power due to their own needs and agenda. This may benefit you in that you are valued by the department, but serve against you in that you are valued based on criteria you have no control over and it may be the guiding factor in how others treat you.

Be mindful of the changing expectations of your memberships across different settings. In some settings, your particular membership (e.g., being the only person of a particular ethnicity or the only woman in your lab) may work for you, placing you in a special role, while in others it may isolate you. Memberships and roles are often accompanied by unique expectations. Fusing these memberships may be challenging at times, especially when they involve competing norms or expectations or when one group membership conflicts with another (e.g., being a dedicated spouse/partner while also being a dedicated graduate student/advisee). The various spheres of your life and identities each have implicit, unwritten rules. It is up to you to recognize and understand the “hidden curriculum” that characterizes your field, program or department.


  1. Tinto, V. (1998). Colleges as communities: Taking research on student persistence seriously. The Review of Higher Education, 21, 167-177. doi:10.1353/rhe.1997.0024
  2. Golde, C. M. (2005). The role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition: Lessons from four departments. The Journal of Higher Education, 76 (6), 669-700. doi:10.1353/jhe.2005.0039
  3. Tinto, V. (1993) [2nd ed.]. Toward a theory of doctoral persistence. In Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. [pp. 230-243]. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70, 324-435. doi:10.2307/2673270
  5. Bair, C. R., & Haworth, J. G. (2005). Doctoral student attrition and persistence: A meta-synthesis of research. In Smart, J. C. (Ed.) Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, 19, 481-534. doi:10.1007/1-4020-2456-8_11
  6. Earl-Novell, S. (2006). Determining the extent to which program structure features and integration mechanisms facilitate or impede doctoral student persistence in mathematics. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 1, 45-57.
  7. Golde, C.M. (2000). Should I stay or should I go. Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199-227. doi:10.1353/rhe.2000.0004
  8. Herzig, A.H. (2002). Where have all the doctoral students gone? Participation of doctoral students in authentic mathematical activity as a necessary condition for persistence toward the Ph.D. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 50, 177-212. doi:10.1023/A:1021126424414
  9. Herzig, A. H. (2004). Becoming mathematicians: Women and students of color choosing and leaving doctoral mathematics. Review of Educational Research, 74, 171-214. doi:10.3102/00346543074002171
  10. National Science Foundation. (2008). Science and engineering indicators 2008. ( Retrieved October 30, 2009.
  11. Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. doi:10.2307/1229039

Distinguishing Customs and Roles in International Relations (Part 1)
Highlights the universal customs of science.

Distinguishing Customs and Roles in International Relations (Part 2)
Elaborates on the standard practice of science despite cultural differences.

Awkward Social Interactions
The challenges of working in male-dominated academic environments and the negative stereotypes associated with women who have children.

Oblivion is Bliss
How being unaware of being the only woman was advantageous to program success.

The Good, the Bad, the "Only"
The pros and cons of being the only woman in a department and the importance of setting boundaries and knowing your own limitations.

Advisor Issues
How a positive advisor challenged his students to think for themselves.

Critical Mass
Captures the annoyance of male colleagues making sexist assumptions and the challenges with conference travel as a female graduate student.

Being Comfortable as a Woman Among Men
Emphasizes positive peer relationships within her cohort.


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