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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to recognize and handle delays and setbacks in making progress towards your degree.


“After several years of graduate school and countless research projects, none of my research has produced positive results. I am starting to wonder if I will ever publish a decent study.”

“Graduating is beginning to feel more and more like an insurmountable task. Now that I am married and have children, the amount of time I have to devote to my degree is dwindling.”

“Some days it seems like I spend as much time struggling with old lab equipment as I do actually running my own experiments.”

Can You Identify with One or More of These Obstacles?

You are certainly not alone. Four out of 10 women in doctoral programs report concerns with their academic and professional accomplishments.1

Research productivity is very important in science and engineering graduate programs.

Productivity is defined as engagement in the following areas:

  • presentations at professional conferences
  • publishing books, chapters, or articles
  • developing software
  • submitting copyrights or patents
  • reviewing books
  • writing grant proposals

The STATS: Women’s Experiences with Delays

Did you know that women have to be three times more productive than men in order to be awarded a conference presentation2 and two-and-a-half times more productive than men to receive a postdoctoral fellowship?3 This means that women have to create over twice as many presentations, publications, copyrights, patents, software, reviews, or proposals to be recognized as an accomplished scientist or engineer.

At this point you may be thinking, “Great, more bad news.” You are right, the hurdles seem to be higher for women in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics in many ways, but along with these barriers, there are also supports that can influence your experience as a graduate student.

Common Delays and Setbacks Women Experience

Marriage, Children, and Dual Careers

  • Choices about lifestyle are associated with the level of productivity among women in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering.
  • Women scientists experience more reduced career mobility than male scientists due to dual-career marriages.4
  • Women in academia who are younger than 40 as well as women with children under the age of 6 published significantly less than at other points in their career/life.5
  • Studies have found that women professors carry more of the household labor, especially when there are children in the home.6 The unbalanced gender roles at home leave women in the sciences, math, and engineering with less time to devote to their professional activities.
  • The Balance and Climate sections of the CareerWISE modules also cover these barriers in greater detail.

Advising, Mentoring, and Collaboration

  • Faculty who have had mentors and role models in their graduate programs produce more articles in peer-reviewed journals.7
  • The Advisor Issues section of the CareerWISE modules covers these barriers in greater detail.

Financial and Structural Impediments

  • A common complaint among women graduate students in the sciences and engineering is the limited resources available to them. Equipment problems, space, and time are all hindrances to productive research in the lab, particularly in a male-dominated setting.

The Importance of Productivity in Grad. School

Studies have found that students who are more productive in science and mathematics programs are 3.9 times more likely to complete their doctorates than students who do not produce as much research. The same studies found that students in engineering programs were 2.7 times more likely to complete their doctorates when their research productivity levels were high.8

Keep in mind, completing a graduate degree is a marathon race, not a sprint. And the race is worth it:

  • The National Opinion Research Center sampled over 1,500 full-time faculty members at four- and two-year institutions and found that 90% of the faculty surveyed were satisfied with their career choices and would probably make the same decisions again.9
  • Interviews with women who finished their degrees often reveal a key moment of success or achievement that kept them going.10

If you relate to any of the barriers mentioned in this section, including unsuccessful research, delayed progress through your program of study, and/or financial and structural impediments, please remember that you can influence these factors. CareerWISE is designed to provide this information to you and to supply the resources needed to overcome these delays and setbacks.


Josephine entered her program with the goal of finishing in the minimum amount of time. Since then, however, she has experienced a number of delays and setbacks, for numerous reasons, both good and bad. She now feels like she will not achieve her original goal, and that is causing her to feel frustrated, and afraid that she may not ever finish.

Which of the following options would be helpful for Josephine to consider?

Best answer: D. Encouraging oneself (answer A) is important and helpful, but this answer emphasizes compensating for her delays by increasing her efforts. Doing so places her at risk for balance issues, and it may even cause more frustration. Answers B and C are strategies that Josephine can employ to reframe her situation and use some positive self-talk to help her cope with her delays.


  1. Moyer, A., Salovey, P., & Casey-Cannon, S. (1999). Challenges facing female doctoral students and recent graduates. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 23, 607-630. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1999.tb00384.x
  2. Towers, S. (2008). A case study of gender bias at the post-doctoral level in physics, and its resulting impact on the academic career advancement of females. Retrieved Jun 17, 2008, from
  3. Wenneras, C., & Wold, A. (2001). Nepotism and sexism in peer-review. In M. Wyer (Ed.), Women, science, and technology: A reader in feminist studies (pp. 46-52). New York: Routledge.
  4. Shauman, K. A., & Xie, Y. (1996). Geographic mobility of scientists: Sex differences and family constraints. Demography, 34, 455-468.
  5. Suitor, J. J, Mecom, D., & Feld, I. S. (2001). Gender, household labor, and scholarly productivity among university professors. Gender Issues, 19(4), 50-67. doi:10.1007/s12147-001-1007-4
  6. Fox, M. F. (2005). Gender, family characteristics, and publication productivity among scientists. Social Studies of Science, 35, 131-150. doi:10.1177/0306312705046630
  7. Shollen, S. L., Bland, C. J., Taylor, A. L., Finstad, D. A. & Center, B. A. (2007). Mentoring model for faculty retention: Relating formal and informal mentoring, satisfaction, and productivity. University of Minnesota.
  8. Nettles, M. T., & Millett, C. M. (2006). Three magic letters: Getting to Ph.D. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  9. National Opinion Research Center. (1990). The American faculty poll. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.
  10. Margolis, J., & Fisher, A. (2003). Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stubbornness and Tenacity
Highlights the obstacles faced when trying to have research reviewed by the advisor and emphasizes the steps necessary to make adequate progress in the program.

Undergrad Science vs. Real Life Science (Part 2)
The importance of learning from your effort, regardless of the outcome.

Reflecting on "Why" and "How"
The importance of giving yourself credit and remembering why you are doing what you're doing.

To Post-Doc or Not to Post-Doc
When it's time to graduate and when it's important to start learning on the job.

How Do You Know When You're Ready?
The importance of learning from failed experiments.

Proactive Approach and Adapting Environments
How to adapt experimental methods to match a lifestyle.

Thwarting Thoughts of Quitting
The importance of goal setting and using others' experiences to make strong choices about your own path.

Best Laid Plans
How to negotiate a schedule for raising a family and overcoming setbacks in a new career.

The Stress of the Last Year
Advice for balancing research and fun in graduate school.

Non-Progress Is Still Progress
The importance of peer relationships and the learning process that takes place despite concrete outcomes.


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