This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Uncovering the Social Organization of Women PhD Students' Experiences in Biology: An Institutional Ethnography




Steele, Ariel

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Education Foundation, Leadership, and Technology

Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



Biological science programs enroll and graduate more women than other STEM disciplines; nearly 60% of undergraduate students are women, and women and men enter graduate programs at equal rates. This suggests that the field of biological sciences has become more equitable or that gender bias has been minimized. However, the representation of women in senior academic positions drops after graduate school, and women still report gendered experiences in biological science programs. By removing biological sciences from the discourse around gender inequality and the chilly climate in STEM, we lose the ability to identify whether gender biases persist in a gender-balanced field. Therefore, this dissertation addresses that gap. The purpose of this institutional ethnography was to examine the STEM institutional processes, practices, and discourses that coordinated the experiences of women PhD students in biological sciences at a Southern Research University. Beginning from the standpoint of women PhD students as an entry point into the institution, I explored the everyday work of women PhD students in a gender-balanced field to provide a unique perspective on the institutional structures that coordinate STEM graduate student work. Data collection and analysis began with in-depth interviews with women PhD students and expanded to interviews with faculty members and the analysis of institutional texts (e.g., handbooks, syllabi, web pages). I followed Carspecken’s critical ethnographic methodology as an analytical process that began with low-level coding and led to high-level coding and code reorganization. This analysis led to three key findings. First, participants, faculty, and texts described the characteristics of the ideal graduate student as someone who has an adequate scientific background, prioritizes research, is willing to ask questions, manages their time and responsibilities well, and is self-motivated. Participants reported challenges with meeting the ideal graduate student and experienced a fear of failure and imposter syndrome as a result. Second, neoliberal discourses coordinated the everyday work of graduate students through productivity, competition, and pressure to “do it all.” Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic changed graduate student work by impacting how their research, coursework, and teaching work were conducted. Findings indicate that the discourses and expectations that coordinated the experiences of women graduate students contributed to the chilly climate in STEM. Overall, the findings of this dissertation indicate that similar institutional discourses are coordinating the experiences of the participants in different ways. Neoliberal discourses such as productivity, prioritizing research output, competition, and pressure to publish created an educational environment and contributed to the construction of the ideal graduate student as a disembodied, unencumbered worker that has unlimited time and resources to conduct and produce research. Neoliberal discourses in higher education create a high-pressure, competitive, chilly environment and (re)produce an ideal academic as someone willing to conform to the demands of the academic workload, which can differentially impact women graduate students as they try to conform standards that are packaged as normal and neutral but are instead gendered.