How Graduate School Shapes Women's Career and Family Plans: A Case Study of MBA, JD, and PhD Students

Holly Hummer , Harvard University

Although increasing numbers of women are earning graduate and professional degrees, sociologists know little about how the process of graduate school itself can shape women’s career and family aspirations. In this paper, I draw on 43 in-depth interviews with childless female MBA, JD, and PhD students finishing graduate programs at two universities to highlight how the institutional context of graduate school produces uncertainty in women’s perceived ability to reconcile future work and family demands. I find that several mechanisms operating in graduate school together foster this uncertainty, including institutionalized “prescribed pathways” that push students towards prestigious yet often undesirable jobs and peer-to-peer networks that offer alternative advice for achieving work/life balance. Because the data reveal common processes regardless of school or program, I argue that these findings apply to a broad range of graduate school contexts and are useful for better understanding gendered career outcomes as well as fertility decisions.

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 Presented in Session 8. Economy, Labor Force, Education, & Inequality