Women As Students: Two Personal PhD Reflections and Suggested Practical Strategies

Women As Students: Two Personal PhD Reflections and Suggested Practical Strategies

Sonja Ardoin
North Carolina State University
Lindsey Katherine-Dippold
Rio Salado College

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.


Women serve in multiple roles concurrently, such as employees, parents, children, spouses, caretakers, friends, volunteers, and students. Women experience these roles through the intersection of their identities including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability status, religion, and age. Women’s varying roles and identities can provide them with advantages and/or disadvantages in academia. Women’s role as students, specifically as doctoral students, is one that warrants attention as the total number and percentage of women obtaining doctoral degrees steadily increases and the time it takes to complete the degree is increasing as well. In education, the median number of years for doctoral degree completion rose from 12.6 in 1975 to 19.4 in 2000 (Hoffer et al., 2001). The increasing time to earn their degree reflects the struggle women have with finding and maintaining balance between all of their various roles; in fact, according to Stimpson and Filer (2011), women find work life balance much more difficult than their male graduate student counterparts.


Both theory and practical strategies can be instrumental in helping women doctoral students persevere through the doctoral process and increase their successful completion. In this article, the authors use feminist theory and attribution theory to frame their personal reflections and lessons learned from different doctoral program experiences and provide practical strategies that may assist others in their doctoral matriculation and success.

Conceptual Frameworks: Feminist Theory & Attribution Theory

The authors’ doctoral experiences exemplify themes from two conceptual frameworks: feminist theory and attribution theory. This section begins with an overview of these frameworks and then addresses how the authors’ stories exemplify each one.

First, feminist theory seemed an obvious choice, as the two authors are women and cognizant—on some level—of the impact of their gender in their doctoral program experiences. Because the stereotypes of extreme feminism (e.g., angry, whining, bra-burning women) may continue to dissuade conversations about feminism, the authors hope that the use of the feminist theory framework can help current women graduate students become more unified and successful. The strength that can emerge from this unity is particularly important because, although women have made significant gains in their numeric representation in all levels of study at colleges and universities, they are still underrepresented in positions of power and still face discrimination from peers, faculty, and administrators in many ways (Ropers-Huilman, 2002). Among the various strands of feminist theory, a set of consistent theoretical themes exists including: (a) acknowledging that women are valuable contributors, (b) recognizing that women as a group have been unable to reach their full potential in society, and (c) understanding that feminist research should not only critique but also lead to social change (Ropers-Huilman, 2002).

The second conceptual framework, attribution theory, “examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a casual judgment” (Fiske & Taylor, 1991, p. 23). This theory deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at casual explanations for events, such as attributing consequences or outcomes to others instead of oneself. The theory attempts to answer the common question: is there a relationship between a student’s personal attributes (e.g., locus of control) or relational attributes—either personal (e.g., locus of control) or relational (e.g., student/advisor relationship)—and persistence to graduation at the doctoral level (Gardner, 2009)?

Gardner (2009) identifies seven main attributes to doctoral student attrition: funding, advisor relationship, gender, race, subject matter, test scores/GPA, and socialization. By identifying students’ attributes, faculty and students can enhance their understanding of what might cause attrition and predict future success or failure (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Gardner, 2009). Interestingly, faculty and students differ on their explanations and perceptions of the cause of attrition (Gardner, 2009). To explain attrition, faculty indicate students’ lack of preparation (53%), making the wrong decision to attend their school or program 21%, and personal problems (15%). On the other hand, students cite personal problems (34%), departmental issues (30%), and wrong fit (21%) as reasons for attrition (Gardner, 2009). Lovitts (2001) found higher levels of attrition among social sciences students, women, students of color, those with a lack of funding resources, and those not connecting with peers.

In the authors’ reflections on their own doctoral experiences, several themes emerge from the feminist and attribution theories including funding concerns, locus of control, and relationships. The following reflections contain different voices and perspectives so other women can connect to the authors’ stories and all readers can develop a better understanding of the doctoral student experience for women. Sonja’s reflection will focus internally on her intersecting identities as a young(er) woman from a low-income background who is a first-generation college student pursuing a doctoral degree. Lindsey’s reflection will emphasize her dual roles as a full-time student and a full-time university administrator and her external relationships with others during the doctoral process.

Reflection #1: Sonja Ardoin

Attribution theory points out how we use information to explain our life situations (Gardner, 2009); there are attributes of life that we can influence and attributes that we inherit by birthright. Feminist theory supports the importance of women being aware of these two types of attributes; specifically, it speaks to the awareness that we, as women, have of our sex and how we need to simultaneously know our value and expect more equity (Ropers-Huilman, 2002). Consequently, I agree with Fiske and Taylor’s (1991) suggestion that women doctoral students and their faculty should reflect on women doctoral student attributes in an effort to predict success or failure. It is reflections like these, in my opinion and experience, which help us decipher if our efforts are those of an imposter or of a pioneer. As evidenced below, I hope to be a pioneer, although believing I am one will be a continual process.

“People like me” do not typically pursue a doctorate. People like me are women. They are from low-income, rural backgrounds. They are the first person in their families to attend college. They are under the age of 30 (or I was at the time). None of those identities are extremely prevalent in doctoral programs and many are shown to lead to attrition (Lovitts, 2001). People like me are single and do not have any dependents. People like me are also White, heterosexual, Christian (Catholic specifically), and temporarily able-bodied. This second set of identities are linked to persistence and matriculation for doctoral students (Maher, Ford, & Thompson, 2004). Thus, my identity is somewhat of a mixed bag of privileged and underrepresented in the pursuit of a doctorate (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Gardner, 2009). I reflect frequently on my identity as I experience the doctoral process.

During my first month as a PhD student, I had a less than ideal encounter with a male faculty member from a different program that led to further reflection on my intersecting identities. This man and I met in the common kitchen space. I knew who he was from my e-mail exchanges with him; he had wanted me to do some work for him but refused to meet with me in person. What proceeded was a conversation in which he mocked my doctoral student status due to my identities as a young(er) person and a woman, although he used the term “girl.” I was stunned by the man’s comments and body language, especially his blatant belittling of my identities as a young(er) woman doctoral student, and his misuse of privilege as a tenured, White male faculty member. For a moment, it brought me back to the idea that “people like me” do not get doctorates and this was why.

Apparently, it was not the first time, or even second time, that this man had insulted a woman student or faculty member. As I shared my story with my peers and program faculty—both men and women—I found solace and support in a communal bewilderment as to why this man was still allowed to teach and advise if he ostracizes women students. I found resolution in reflecting that the opinion of one man did not represent the opinions of all others nor did it signify any portion of my worth or ability as a woman student. I also recognized that the situation could have been heightened had I held any additional underrepresented identities.

In my pursuit of the PhD, I am also highly aware of my background as both a first-generation college student and a student from a low-income, rural family. Although my family has continuously supported me and told me to “go to college and get a good job,” I have always known that it would be my responsibility to make it happen logistically and financially, which stands today. I came into the doctoral process knowing I was already in debt from my first two degrees and that I did not want to add a substantial amount to that existing debt. Gardner (2009) and Lovitts (2001) both cite funding concerns as barriers for women students and reasons for their attrition. So, I sought ways to finance my PhD. I applied for any scholarship or fellowship offered from any organization with which I had an affiliation or that funded research topics similar to mine. I filled out quite a number of applications. It paid off, literally! I was awarded a few of the fellowships, which helped lessen the financial burden of the doctoral degree and allowed me to continue my professional development interests.

Looking back, these two small stories in my larger doctoral process remind me that there are things that are within women students’ locus of control during the doctoral process and things that are not (Gardner, 2009). It is important to determine this distinction in order to make effective choices and shape the aspects that can be influenced. Consequently, it is vital for women as students to continuously reflect on who they are and what experiences and skills they possess to remind themselves that, even if they are the first “person like me” to get a doctorate, they can become the trailblazers.

Reflection #2: Lindsey Katherine Dippold

Gardner (2009) identifies seven main attributes of doctoral students that influence attrition: funding, advisor relationship, gender, race, subject matter, test scores/GPA, and socialization. Reflecting on my doctoral experience, the attributes of advisor relationship, funding, gender, and socialization resonate strongly within my story. Gardner (2009) finds the advisor-student relationship influences successful degree completion; I would echo this relationship as essential in two areas: support and guidance. The majority of people I met who are struggling to complete their degree often blame a disconnect between themselves and their major professor. This is an important relationship, although I interpret “advisor” to apply to many people who were instrumental in guiding my path to successful completion, such as professors on my committee and my supervisors (and mentors) at work.

My experience was essentially a balancing act, as I set out to complete my degree in five years while continuing to work full-time on campus as a student affairs administrator. The decision to take on both of those relates back to the attribute of funding (Gardner, 2009). I wanted to minimize loan debt but I also did not want to lose out of valuable work experience. Taking four classes per semester and continuing to put in 40-hour work weeks would not have been an option without the confidence of and support from my supervisors who allowed me to rearrange my schedule at times to accommodate courses and meetings. In order to gain support, I believe you need a clear vision of how this goal fits with your future, and need to share this with your advisors and supervisors. Once they understand what this venture means to you and your future, it will be easier for them to support you.

Advisors also provide guidance; listen to them! The best guidance I received was to let go of my inherent need to overachieve and strive for perfection. It was a reality check that most doctoral students have a hard time grasping. No one (other than you) will care if you have a 4.0 in doctoral coursework, or (gasp) a 3.85. As for your dissertation, it is your first study—it’s not going to change the world and it isn’t supposed to; it simply proves you can conduct a study from start to finish. This is just the beginning. Keep it simple, keep it short, and your life will be much easier. Collect more data than you need but only focus on a small piece for the dissertation. This allowed me to keep my study manageable and now I have additional data I can analyze as a plan for future articles and presentations. Another great tip from an advisor: write every day. At first, I thought that was impossible, but once I actually started writing most days, the chapters came together quickly. I found that when I didn’t even want to look at it, if I just opened it up with some simple task in mind (planning where to put charts or tables, or looking simply for typos) that soon I was making even more progress.

The attributes found to influence attrition by Gardner (2009) overlap for me in a key area: the student-advisor relationship and gender. When I found myself surrounded by faculty and advisors who were men, I leaned on my administrative mentors who are women for advice and support. I found it important to seek out relationships with women who had similar goals and interests but with much more experience than myself.

Socialization is another key element in attrition and is especially important for part-time students (or full-time employees), parents, caregivers, or anyone serving multiple major roles (Gardner, 2009; Lovitts, 2001). Your classmates are the only ones who will truly understand your frustrations over time-consuming assignments, the stress of studying for comps, and the joy that comes after each mini-accomplishment. As a full-time student and administrator, I lacked the free time that some full-time students with part-time work had and wasn’t able to attend all of the social (or program-related) events that my classmates held. But, I did make some time and really focused on connecting with my peers and being present when I could.

Your classmates also are helpful to efficiently approach major educational projects. My peers and I held group study sessions and each was assigned a subject area and compiled class notes, relevant articles and study guides to share with the group in preparation for comps. This was much better than tackling it all alone! This also allows your group to share in the celebration of the milestones along the way. However, make time for friends/family who exist outside of school and try not to spend all of your time talking about school with them. I actually had a friend fall asleep while I was explaining my dissertation study. Point taken!

Both of my “lessons learned” focus on the importance of utilizing people as resources and support agents throughout the journey. It still amazes me that I could finish the program in just over four years while maintaining a high quality of work in my career, but I know I could not have been successful without the support and relationships with my faculty, supervisors, classmates, coworkers, and friends.

Passing Down Practical Strategies

The stories of women as students are important to share, as Gardner (2009) points out: “the perspective of current students and their beliefs about student departure within their specific departments may lead to a better understanding of why doctoral student attrition occurs” (p. 100). Perspective and reflection are important attributes to possess as women graduate students. Not only do these attributes help students through their own processes, but perspective and reflection can also provide stories, lessons, and strategies to assist future women as students in the planning and execution of their academic pursuits.

The authors’ reflections and lessons learned can be shaped into practical strategies that may benefit future women as students. These strategies include:

  • Do not let “the man” [proverbial and literal] get you down. Find female (and male) mentors and peers to support you along the doctoral path. They do not necessarily have to be in your specific program or at your institution.
  • There is a first time for everything! Any of your underrepresented, or intersecting, identities may result in feeling alone in academia or your own family/communities. Try to find other students who share your identities with whom you can relate and from whom you can obtain support.
  • Finagle your finances. Do the math when it comes to loans, work wages, grants, fellowships, etc. Apply for anything that aligns with you or your study. Make the pro/con list when making financial decisions for academic (or social) purposes. Sometimes it is worth the extra money (for professional development, balance, etc.).
  • Age is just a number! Do not let anyone tell you that you are too young or too old to pursue a PhD; you apply when it is right for you!
  • Focus on fit. Do your best to determine if a program, institution, location, and all the corresponding people are suitable for you—for your identities, your work style, your finances, the opportunities, the connections, etc. Feeling welcome and “at home” in your program/department/college/institution can be highly important to retention and satisfaction; do your research beforehand, ask tough questions, seek current student opinions, etc. Rankings and faculty names will not matter if the overall fit is not there and lack of fit leads to attrition and no doctoral student or program wants that.
  • Think about the future. Identify your long-term goal and how your program/degree fits. Make time to seek out additional experiences that will help enrich your experience and market yourself post-graduation.
  • Figure out what you love and do it. Incorporate subject areas and topics in which you are passionate about into your studies. Identify what activities you love to do outside of work and school and make time for these. All work and no play leads to burnout.

Discussion Questions

  • Which of your identities provide you with privilege and which may be underrepresented in the doctoral process? How do you feel about that? How do you think that affects you as an individual and the academic system as a whole?
  • Attribution theory highlights themes that may lead to attrition such as funding, gender, race, subject matter, advisor relationship, academic preparation, and socialization (Gardner, 2009). Which ones do you find to be most relevant to your situation? What steps are you taking to improve these potential threats to your success?
  • Reflect on your own personal situation and experiences thus far. How can you share your stories and experiences with others to assist them in their learning and decision-making without leading them in a specific direction?


Council of Graduate Schools (2008). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline  
demographic data from the Ph.D. completion project.Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Retrieved July 10, 2012 from http://www.phdcompletion.org/information/Executive_Summary_Demographics_…

Fiske, S.T., & Taylor, S.E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gardner, S. K. (2009). Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing
doctoral programs in the United States. Higher Education: The International Journal of
Higher Education and Planning, 58(1), 97-112.

Hoffer, T., Dugoni, B., Sanderson, A., Sederstrom, S., Ghadialy, R., & Rocque, P. (2001). Doctorate recipients from United States universities: Summary report 2000. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.

Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from   
doctoral study. Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Maher, M.A., Ford, M.E., & Thompson, C.M. (2004). Degree progress of women doctoral
students: Factors that constrain, facilitate, and differentiate. The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), pp. 385–408.

Ropers-Huilman, B. (Ed.). (2003). Gendered futures in higher education: Critical perspectives for change. Albany, NY: SUNY.

Additional Recommended Resources

American Council on Education. (2008). Minorities in higher education 2008 twenty-third status report. Washington, DC: Author.

Cao, W. (2001). How male and female doctoral students experience their doctoral programs similarly or differently? Seattle, WA: American Educational Research Association. (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No. ED 453725).

Fordan, A. E. (1999). Advocates, barriers, and responses: The personal narratives of nine female doctoral students. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 438743).

Gentry, D. S. (2004).  My sisters’ voices: Women’s stories, academic life, and the journey to the doctorate degree. Dissertation Abstracts International. (Publication No.  AAT 3162233).

Ireland, P. (2003). Progress versus equality: Are we there yet?  In in D. Rhode (Ed.). The difference difference makes: Women and leadership (pp. 193-202). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

National Opinion Research Center. Survey of Earned Doctorates Report 2010. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center. Retrieved August 24, 2012, from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/digest/2010/

Knox, S., Burkard, A.W., Janecek, J., Pruitt, N.T., Fuller, S.L., & Hill, C.E. (2011). Positive and problematic dissertation experiences: The faculty perspective. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 24(1), p. 55-69.

Stimpson, R.L. & Filer, K.L. (2011). Female graduate students’ work-life balance and the
student affairs professional. In P. A., Pasque, & S. E. Nicholson (Eds.), Empowering
women in higher education and student affairs (pp. 69- 83). Sterling, VA, Stylus Publishing.

About the Authors

Sonja Ardoin has always been drawn to a career in education and found her path to higher education during her student leadership experiences at Louisiana State University. She continued her education with a master’s degree from Florida State University’s Higher Education program before working for four years in student activities at Florida State and Texas A&M. Sonja is currently completing her PhD at North Carolina State University in Educational Research and Policy Studies. Her research focuses on rural students’ understanding of college knowledge and university jargon.

Please e-mail inquiries to Sonja Ardoin.

Lindsey Katherine Dippold became passionate about college student services while still an undergraduate, but her career blossomed at Florida State University, serving as a career services administrator and career development course instructor for six years. After completing her doctorate at FSU, she served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi before relocating to Phoenix, AZ.

Please e-mail inquiries to Lindsey Katherine Dippold.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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