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Alternate Paths to University Positions: Women’s Choice


Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Academy
A National Symposium
November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina


Susan M. Merritt, Ph.D., Dean
Catherine Dwyer, Lecturer, Information Systems
Bernice J. Houle, Ph.D., Associate Dean
Pauline H. Mosley, D.P.S., Associate Professor, Technology Systems
Jean F. Coppola, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Technology Systems

Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, Pace University

Although there has been a slight increase in the representation of women and minorities among Ph.D.s and graduates of professional training programs, the distribution of women in academia still largely conforms to the inverted pyramid structure, according to the 2007 National Science Foundation, Women and Minorities and Persons with Disabilities Analysis.

Despite persistent recruitment and retainment efforts, women continue to be under-represented at senior levels.  The total number (men and women combined) of doctorates awarded nationally in 1973 was 33,755.  Of that number, black women accounted for 0.5 percent, Hispanic women 0.13 percent, and Asian women 0.6 percent.  Twenty-five years later, based on data for 1998, when 42,683 doctorates were awarded, the percentages were: black women, 2.5 percent, Hispanic women, 1.9 percent; Asian women 5.9 percent. Unfortunately, gender disparities continue to be a pressing issue within academia.

This paper shares the journeys and obstacles of women who have secured a position within the academy.  Each author will discuss the challenges faced in the process of obtaining academic positions. The goal of sharing this information is to increase the number of women researchers and scholars in academia.

Women Faculty at Pace University Share Their Entrance and Ascent in the Academy

Presenter: Dr. Susan M. Merritt – Dean
Dr. Merritt received a BA in Mathematics from the Catholic University of America, and then entered into a Ph.D. program as part of the first Ph.D. class in Computer Science at New York University’s Courant Institute.  However, after receiving her M.S. in one year, she withdrew from Courant, as the programmatic emphasis remained on Mathematics rather than Computer Science. She then worked for a time in industry, as well as in secondary school teaching (subsequently obtaining certification), and university teaching as an adjunct.  In 1978, she was hired full time as an assistant professor in Management Information Systems at Pace University.  She returned to the Ph.D. program at NYU while teaching and became chair of computer science at Pace in 1982, the same year she obtained her doctorate.  In 1983, Pace University created a School of Computer Science and Information Systems and selected Dr. Merritt to become its first dean, a position she has held for 25 years. The school, now the Ivan G. Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems (CSIS), includes a large percentage of women faculty members, many of whom pursued advanced degrees using non-traditional methods, and who were supported by the school and the university.  Encouragement and support are essential to build a faculty that is diverse in gender as well as ethnicity.  She believes that diversity goals are being met in the Seidenberg School at Pace University.

Presenter: Prof. Cathy Dwyer – Lecturer, Information Systems
Cathy Dwyer’s advancement from adjunct to professor has not been easy.  It has taken her twelve plus years to attain her current academic position.  After obtaining a Masters degree in Computer Science at Pace University, she became an adjunct in the Computer Science and Information Systems (IS) departments in 2000, eventually obtaining a position as lecturer in the Information Systems department.  Her next step was the most difficult undertaking – beginning doctoral studies while teaching full time.  Managing time was critical to surviving and maintaining sanity.  Working full-time, grading papers, keeping office hours, taking courses, completing homework and studying, as well as her dual roles as mother and wife presented numerous challenges.  Professor Dwyer switched her doctoral program in an attempt to find something that would be more suitable for her.  She then determined who would act as her advisor and decided upon a research topic.  She is presently conducting her final study and will defend in March of 2008.  She advises other women to be persistent and to find support when pursuing a similar endeavor.

Presenter: Dr. Bernice J. Houle – Assistant Dean
Bernice Houle has been part of higher education administration for 20 years.  She realized that she wanted to remain in academia in 1993, when employed as Assistant Dean in the School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University.  She also knew she would need a doctoral degree for academic advancement.  Her options, as she saw them, were: to quit her job and attend a Ph.D. program full-time and apply for an assistantship, to continue working full time, find a Ph.D. program locally that could be pursued part-time in the evenings or an Executive Ph.D. program on weekends, or to pursue the degree online.  However, the professional opportunities she was experiencing and her financial commitments precluded her from pursuing a doctoral program full-time, so her options were limited.  Fortunately, the Dean of the school supported her decision to enter a Ph.D. program.  The school provided tuition support and flexible time for the days that she needed to leave work early to get to class, so Bernice continued to work full time as she pursued her degree part time.  Seven years later (the program consisted of 60 credits beyond a masters plus a dissertation) she earned her Ph.D. and was promoted to Associate Dean.

The support from the Dean was invaluable. The Dean’s foresight to provide the financial means and flexible schedule to make it happen was a win-win situation for both Bernice and the school. Bernice was able to pursue her degree while continuing to obtain work experience and receiving a regular paycheck. Moreover, the School was able to and continues to benefit from her knowledge base and work ethic.

Presenter: Dr. Pauline H. Mosley – Associate Professor, Technology Systems
Pauline Mosley’s journey from student to professor has been possible because of the mentoring she received and other doctoral options made available to her.  In 1997, after completing 60 credits of coursework and taking the qualifying exams with only the dissertation to complete, she received a major disappointment when informed that she could no longer be a part-time student in the Ph.D. program.  Consequently, she became ABD (all but dissertation), since she could not afford to continue the program without working and withdrew from the program.  Her husband at the time could not afford to pay tuition, mortgage, and their daily expenses.  In 1999, Pace University initiated a doctoral program in Professional Studies.  This program promised students a Ph.D. at the end of 3 years, additionally providing the convenience of online courses to students. She subsequently enrolled, as the program afforded an opportunity to attend classes while working full-time, as well as a strong mentoring component.  While enrolled in the Professional Studies doctoral program, a teaching opportunity at Pace was presented to Pauline from the Dean of the school.  She accepted the position and in 2000 was hired as a lecturer in the Computer Science department.  Upon completion of the D.P.S. program in 2002, she was able to apply and advance to assistant professor in the Technology Systems department.

Advised by her mentors (Dean Merritt being one of her strongest supporters) she aggressively worked on scholarly activities, and submitted her research to various publications, conferences, workshops, and seminars.  In 2003, she took a leave of absence upon the birth of her second child. During this time, she thought it best to begin work on her dossier, another writing project which she found to be far more challenging than writing the dissertation.  Again, she sought out mentors to help her understand what was expected and how best to proceed.  In 2006, she was awarded tenure and promoted to the rank of associate professor.  Her advice is to be persistent, continuously seek out mentors that can educate and help with the politics, procedures, and processes, and finally, develop strong support mechanisms that can help accomplish goals.

Presenter: Dr. Jean F. Coppola – Assistant Professor, Technology Systems
Over 21 years ago, Jean Coppola launched her academic career as a staff member in Academic Computing. After graduating with a BS degree in Computer Science from a mid-size private university, she was determined to obtain a position locally that provided graduate tuition compensation.  She hoped that her inadequate financial situation would not negatively impact her education.  Moreover, she wanted a position which would utilize a variety of skills and talents. This search resulted in a full-time job as a university computer lab supervisor. Over the next 19 years, new positions were created and she proactively sought skills and education needed to fill those roles.  Fortunately, the direct supervisors and their employers at her first two full-time jobs were women.  She could look up to them as role models in academic administrative positions.

After completing a Masters degree in Computer Science, she felt that networking and telecommunication skills were essential to success in information technology. As a result, she continued her education, obtaining a Masters degree in Telecommunications while simultaneously working on a graduate level certificate in Computer Communications/ Networking.  Mentors and senior colleagues advised her to apply for a Ph.D. and not to take an extended break between degrees, as it would be more difficult to complete the process if she spent more time spent away from class .  She wished to remain in academia, but could not advance much further or apply for a tenure track position without obtaining her Ph.D.

Selecting a best fit doctoral program was not a clear-cut process. On the third attempt, she found a program that was satisfying and more suitable for her.  She enrolled in the first doctoral program because of convenience, partial funding, and school familiarity, as well as good faculty rapport.  This business-school based doctoral program required both business and computing courses. After completing all the required computer courses, she realized the business part of the program would not be desirable to her future career plans. Upon recommendations, she enrolled in the local city graduate school. After a year, she became disappointed with the faculty and computing facilities, as well as obsolete coursework and textbooks. Moreover, course content was redundant and detrimental to current job skill requirements. After additional research she was able to find a program that offered a computing technology degree in education.  Course selections were different and complimentary options such as learning theory, research for educators, multimedia, etc were available to degree seeking students. Working full time in a demanding IT manager job resulted in a seven year part-time pursuit of her doctorate.  The tremendous support of friends, co-workers, and mentors allowed her to persevere and complete her dissertation. Today, she has obtained a tenure-track faculty position.


Obtaining a Doctorate
“Studies show that 50% of people [both men and women] who begin a doctorate drop out at the dissertation-writing stage.” One of the biggest challenges confronting women and minorities is earning a doctorate.  Most universities and colleges will allow faculty to teach without a degree; however, ascent within the academy cannot begin until one has obtained a Ph.D.  Consequently, acquiring a doctorate is a monumental achievement for most women because of the time and cost required.  One main reason women or minorities failed to complete the doctorate and remain ABD (All But Dissertation) is the lack of a mentor.  The dissertation process is a maze. One must understand curriculum, knowledge producing processes and procedures, as well as institution’s culture, values, and power relations within and beyond the academy. These are critical success factors. Many potential Ph.D. candidates the abandon the path to advanced degrees without a mentor to provide direction through the dissertation maze.  Others give up because they do not know how cope with the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion driven by power relations in the academy.  Some students are also inhibited by the challenges faced while writing a dissertation without the support of a mentor and eventually withdraw from the process.

Lack of Support Mechanisms
Women, in particular, have full-time jobs, families, relationships, but are still responsible for writing 300 – 500 pages of scholarly research.  It is difficult process that is made more difficult by the lack of guidance and direction– the support required to achieve this goal is unavailable to most women, and may prevent them from entering or advancing in academia. 

Summary and Recommendations
Although women at the doctoral level are clearly underrepresented (20% of the total number of doctoral recipients are female), some women manage to find a path. These routes are sometimes non-traditional because of particular family, financial, and/or employment circumstances. Based on our experiences, successful completion of the degree is dependent upon the combined support provided via mentors, parents, and close friends, as well as an employer-approved flexible work schedule.

Selecting the correct doctoral course that best fits one’s own current life situation and future career goals is more difficult then would appear on the surface. Variables, including the type of doctoral programs available, stage in life/family obligations, means of financial support, and work schedule sometimes lead to complex and often uncomfortable decisions. Non-traditional academic degree pursuit may involve enrollment in two or three different doctoral programs in succession until a level of comfort and contentment with the coursework and curriculum administration is found. Moreover, a good thesis advisor and dissertation committee members aids in the successful completion of the dissertation.