Big Changes in the Qualifying Exam Procedure
The many responses to AeroAstro’s new quals process, and how it might be linked to implicit gender bias
Imagine standing in front of a panel of faculty members, some of the most prominent academics in the world of aerospace engineering, having prepared for a short 60 minutes to complete an oral exam and prove your competence in the field in which you hope to receive your PhD. In many departments at MIT, this is the qualifying exam procedure (‘quals’), widely regarded as one of the most terrifying and stressful aspects of graduate studies. Luckily, there are big changes afoot in the AeroAstro department: this exam requirement can now be met through a grade requirement in three courses within a chosen field.
You may wonder: what is the reason for this change? According to an email I received from my department head, “the faculty, led by the Graduate Committee, periodically considers the desired outcomes of our education programs and underlying processes, and how we may most effectively achieve them.” This official department decree seems intentionally vague and nonspecific. However, several of my peers heard that over the years, there was a clear trend showing that men were more likely to pass these exams than women. Fear that this news would become public––especially given the “tenuous position of women at MIT at this moment”––is believed to be behind this action.
What is causing women in the AeroAstro department to fail at noticeably higher rates? One anecdotal story I have heard involves a female student apologizing profusely as she corrected her mistakes while writing on the board during her exam, which caused her to fail the exam. Studies show women apologize more than men, and this may ultimately cause them to be seen as less confident, and therefore less competent. This and other aspects of female speech patterns (upspeak, for example) are consistently cited as reasons why women come across as less sure of themselves compared to their male counterparts.
As you can imagine, this change in the AeroAstro qualifying exam and the believed motivations behind it generated interesting discussions throughout the department. I was personally delighted to know I might not have to take the exam, and even more delighted that the department was making changes to address the systematic inequalities that women face in this male-dominated field.
When I sat down with other women in my department, we shared our excitement for these changes, but we also had our reservations. We were worried that our male classmates and professors might believe we were incapable of passing the quals, or that this new system allowed women to continue studying only because it improved the appearance of gender equality in the department. We harbored fears that we ourselves might also fall prey to this line of thinking and question our place in the PhD program.
In my lab, different discussions played out. The older students on the other side of the exam expressed frustration that future PhD candidates wouldn’t suffer through the exams like they had to. I attempted to explain that perhaps the change was designed to address the inequalities in the department. However, I don’t think this point was taken seriously. One student expressed how good it felt when he passed, and a fellow first year lamented that he felt cheated out of the opportunity to feel that same pride.
There is undeniable irony in white guys complaining that this change was causing them to lose out on some self-indulgent pride, while I was vulnerable enough to express my fears that, as a woman, I might be at a disadvantage. I left this discussion feeling as though they either didn’t acknowledge my point, or simply didn’t care that women were less likely to pass than men. There I was, so nervous about the shame and disappointment I would feel should I fail, while this man was so certain of his future success he couldn’t relate to my anxieties about not passing.
Most of the faculty members in my department are white1 and male. I have heard (anecdotally, of course) that our department has a hard time retaining faculty members who are not white and male, which is another clear indicator of the structural issues at play here. Therefore, during the qualifying exams, white male students stand in front of a panel of mostly white males. In these cases, might it be possible that white male students would feel more at ease in these spaces than women and minorities? Might it be possible that faculty subconsciously see a younger version of themselves in said student, and subconsciously grant them concessions they might not give to others?
I think it is important to make one point clear. I am not arguing that I or any other underrepresented student in the department should be privileged in any way. Rather, I believe that everyone in the program should be granted an equal opportunity at success. But due to factors like implicit bias, this has likely not been the case in the past. Academic performance should be the only thing that has any influence on the exam outcome. No student should worry that their identity might somehow impact their performance or their results.
The men in my lab have likely never questioned whether or not they belonged at MIT. Meanwhile, the women in my department struggle with self-doubt and the pressures of simply existing in this space. Our department may be attempting to improve the position of women who are qualified but are at a disadvantage for reasons unrelated to academic ability. However, to date, the department hasn’t been forthright about why it is implementing these changes. Furthermore, while restructuring the exam is important, there are larger issues at play, including but not limited to the lack of diversity at the faculty level.
AeroAstro is not the only department suffering from these biases. These issues exist across campus. These talks need to be had, and the only way they are going to be productive is if everyone is truly listening. We can’t create a more equitable learning environment until we address these chronic institutional problems, and we can’t address these problems until we start empathizing with the experiences of those who are marginalized. Be better than the men in my lab, and start listening when someone is brave enough to share their perspective.
1As a white person, I have tried to focus this post on the issues I face as a woman and not speak to how race and ethnicity come into play here, as to avoid speaking over communities of color who share a similar, and yet entirely distinct, set of challenges in regards to bias and inclusion. It is dangerous to lump together all underrepresented communities, as specific needs of different communities get lost, so I urge all readers to seek out blog posts by people of color who are speaking to their experiences here at MIT.
This story was originally posted on the MIT Grad Admissions blog.