In recent years, women have been going to graduate school in physical oceanography in increasing numbers, with women currently making up approximately half of all graduate students. However, the number of women in principal investigator positions does not reflect the increase in the number of women attaining their Ph.D. in the field. Thus, there does not appear to be a problem with recruiting women to the field, rather, the problem lies with the retention of those that are trained in physical oceanography.

The lack of retention of junior women scientists is not unique to physical oceanography nor to ocean sciences, rather it occurs throughout the sciences and engineering. The barriers to success for women in physical oceanography, as in other fields, are varied. These include the demands of combining a family with a career that requires a large amount of effort during prime childbearing years, the competition between the career goals of a spouse or partner, and the lack of adequate mentoring.

Recent studies and surveys have consistently shown that one of the indicators of success in science seems to be whether or not an individual has a mentor. The physical oceanographic community cannot change the structure of family life nor make major organizational changes to the structure of scientific careers; however it can begin to make a difference in the mentoring of women junior scientists.

Under the sponsorship of NSF and ONR, we have developed a community-run mentoring program for the purpose of retaining more women in the field of physical oceanography. This effort will allow further capitalization on the investment the funding agencies and the universities have made on the education of women students and will stem the loss of intellectual capital from the physical oceanographic field. Furthermore, this effort will help to create a scientific workforce whose diversity matches that of the student population and, in a broader sense, that of the U.S. population as a whole.

The Role of Mentors

The Council of Graduate Schools cites a useful summary (1) of a mentor’s multiple roles: “Mentors are advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, people who give specific feedback on one’s performance; masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed; sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities; models, of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic.”

Meaningful and sustained guidance a senior individual, acting as a mentor with these multiple roles, can be a critical element to success in a scientific career. Alternatively, failure to be engaged in a productive advisor/advisee relationship has been identified as a significant contributing factor to the lack of progress in a scientific career (2). A mentor can be someone with whom one is actively collaborating, but it can also be someone in a related field who has experiences that can be shared. The advantage to a young woman of working directly with a mentor might include more frequent interaction and the possibility that the mentor would have more familiarity with her work (3). However, it is not always possible to find a mentor who has extensive knowledge in a certain field of study. Additionally, it might be more useful at times to a young scientist to have career guidance from someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in their research (3), but who has a wider perspective on career advancement. Because oceanographers are not always in a place where a mentor can be found locally, it may be important to establish mentoring relationships at a distance or with someone in a related field.

A common argument against formal mentoring programs is that the best mentoring is a spontaneous relationship that arises naturally between a junior and senior person. The counterargument can be that while this is the best kind of mentoring, it occurs less often for women than men, and that we aim to provide at least basic, minimal mentoring where otherwise there might be none.

Overall, our purpose in focusing on the mentoring of junior women is to break a cycle that is perpetuated by the relatively low number of women in the field. As expressed in a recent report (4), “Women are less likely to enter and remain in science and engineering when they lack mentors and role models.” If we are able to provide some mentoring that creates an incremental gain in retention, we believe such an increment will provide positive feedback for further gains in the number of women in physical oceanography, and, as a consequence, a positive gain for the community as a whole.

Other Mentoring Programs

There has been a strong focus on the mentoring of women in science and engineering at many levels during the past decade. In designing our own program, we are fortunate to have many resources to draw upon. For example, CRA-W, the Computing Research Association Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research, has been active since 1991 and has developed a number of successful mentoring programs (5). While we plan to draw heavily from the experience of groups such as CRA-W, we cannot simply adopt a program that has been developed from another discipline. A career in oceanography is unique in that it often requires sea time, there are few, if any, industry jobs, the number of geographical locations where oceanography jobs are available is limited, the field has a preponderance of soft-money positions, and the field is relatively small (relative to computing sciences, mathematics, physics, etc.). These factors all come into play in deciding how a mentoring program should be designed and what facets of mentoring should be emphasized.


1. Nelson, D., 2003. The standing of women in academia. Chemical Engineering Progress, 99(8):38S-41S.

2. Women Scientists in Industry: A Winning Formula for Companies, 1999. Catalyst Publications, New York, NY, 60pp.

3. Rauss, K.P., 2001. Navigating the Tenure Track: A handbook for Scientific Staff. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, 30pp.

4. Nelson, D.J., 2002. Nelson Diversity Surveys, Diversity in Science Association, Norman, OK. [Online].

5. Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research: [Online].