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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Women top men in earning Ph.D.s as college dynamics change in U.S.

Published: Friday, Oct. 15 2010 10:42 p.m. MDT

Marjan Javadi, a doctoral student in chemical engineering at BYU, hopes her research can help in fighting cancer.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO — Marjan Javadi's father died when she was young, her mother never went to college, and her three sisters all got married or engaged instead of earning doctorate degrees. But that's not why Javadi is sitting at a computer in a lab at BYU on a Friday night.

The room smells like soap and chemicals, and there are beakers and little glass vials strewn all over the countertops. Javadi's pink cell phone keeps ringing — her friends are at a party and they wonder if she's coming — but she ignores it, concentrating instead on the particle size analyzer in front of her eyes.

Her experiment isn't working.

"I'm trying to get them small, like 100 nanometers, but they are 300," Javadi says disappointedly about the invisible particles in the vial of murky blue liquid that's been in the analyzer for the last three minutes. "Chemotherapy affects all of the body, so we're trying to attack just the cancerous cells so it won't kill or hurt other healthy cells."

This is the reason Javadi, a doctoral student in chemical engineering at BYU, comes to school at 8 in the morning and stays until 9 or 10 at night. It's the reason she won't see her family in Iran for the next four to eight years, and the reason the 28-year-old has sworn off marriage until she's at least earned her Ph.D. Education is her passion, her "No. 1 priority" and, maybe some day, she can help cure cancer, too.

Javadi is a part of a growing trend that is changing the makeup of colleges and universities across the country and the face of America's work force. Women have outpaced men in receiving bachelor's and master's degrees since the late 1980s, but in the 2008-09 school year, for the first time, more women than men earned doctorate degrees, according to a recent study by the U.S. Council of Graduate Schools. According to the study, 50.4 percent of doctorate degrees — and 60 percent of master's degrees — awarded in 2008-09 were given to women.

The margin of women earning Ph.D.s over men may be slim, but it is significant. Besides raising the eyebrows of a long-established, male-dominated faction of higher education, the shift also raises questions — and hopes, for some — about how a better-educated population of women might affect families, the economy and ultimately, all of society.

"It is a benefit to society to have roughly equal numbers of highly educated men and women," said Valerie Hudson, a political science professor at BYU who was named as one of Foreign Policy magazine's 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2009. "The female perspective may lead to new questions asked in research, new priorities for policy making, new ways of doing business, new standards of ethical behavior, and so forth. … Human collectives at all levels do best when run jointly by the two halves of humanity."

Utah lags behind the national average with still more men than women gaining a higher education. This fall, 55.6 percent of the student body at the University of Utah, including undergraduates and graduate students, are male. At BYU, 70 percent of the students enrolled in doctorate programs this year are male.

Nevertheless, "the percentage of women is always increasing," says Charles Wight, dean of the University of Utah's graduate school.

The trend for women to receive a higher education has been gradual, Wight says, but long lasting — long enough even to invalidate the current economic crisis as the reason for the shift.

"Universities in general tend to have bulges in enrollment in times of economic downturns, and that is the case right now," Wight said. "But this trend is not just something precipitated by an economic downturn. I don't think a bad economy plays favorites with men and women. Everybody hurts."

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