Lukas Flippo, Photo Editor
For the first time in Yale history, the incoming class of physics doctoral students, who will likely graduate in 2027 or 2028, will include more women than men.
This fall, 18 women and 17 men will ascend on Science Hill to begin their pursuits of doctoral degrees in physics. By comparison, the incoming classes of 2018 and 2019 both included just three women, and in 2020, 13 women began to pursue their doctorates in physics at Yale. And nationally, only about 20 percent of physics doctorate holders are female. According to Simon Mochrie, the director of graduate admissions for the physics department and a professor of physics and applied physics, this year’s applicant pool was especially competitive, with more applicants than previous years — the department received 563 applications, which is up from 480 applicants last year. Yale College observed similar trends for the class of 2025.
“I am really hopeful that the department is going to become a friendlier space,” Emma Castiglia GRD ’22 wrote in an email to the News. “I just hope that the department itself continues to make structural changes to be a more diverse, open community, instead of expecting the newer members to be the ones driving the change.”
Castiglia is the chair of graduate students in Yale Women in Physics+, a group fostering community among women and gender minorities in physics, applied physics and astrophysics. Graduate students, postdocs and faculty members are eligible for membership.
Mochrie said he postulates that the strength of Yale physics research, increased recruitment efforts — such as a virtual physics open house — and the presence of female role models within the department are responsible for the shift.
Professor of physics and astrophysics Meg Urry also emphasized the importance of representation as a source of allyship and inspiration. As Yale’s first female faculty member in physics, Urry advocates for and exemplifies this perspective.
Mochrie also noted that the department decided against accepting GRE scores this round of applications, which could have contributed to the increase in applicants.
Urry shared concerns over discrimination that stems from relying too much on the test.
“If you just blindly use the GRE as a measure of quality, you will automatically make your incoming class whiter and more male,” she told the News.
Urry said she believes that it is necessary to consider an applicant’s merits in the context of their environment rather than their absolute achievements — which is an approach she thinks Yale has adopted. She explained the importance of maintaining awareness of compared bias-conscious admissions through her work in astrophysics.
“The objects in the sky that are brightest and closest are the ones that are easiest to see, and the ones that are dimmer and farther away are harder to see,” she said. “So we correct for this — that is what you have to do in a world where you know you are discriminating against women, and against people of color and against anyone who is in a minority group. You have to be extra careful that you’re not judging the value of this person by a characteristic that’s unrelated to their ability.”
Rachel Cooper GRD ’22 — the social chair for Women in Physics+ — emphasized women’s agency, noting that while structural boundaries prevent women from pursuing advanced degrees in physics, individual choice plays a role as well. Yale can accept more women, but that does not mean the admitted students will accept Yale, she said. Cooper herself has a five-year-old son whom she does not want to uproot by chasing research positions around the country. According to Cooper, achieving gender parity requires disassembling the factors — including the undue burden of family responsibility — that can drive women to make choices that sideline their careers.
Urry shared this position, telling the News that over the course of her career, female scientists consistently asked her if it is possible to research and raise a family. Urry said she will know physics has reached gender equality when men and women make this inquiry at the same rate.
She said that individual physicists and the field as a whole both suffer when institutions perpetuate inequality.
Castiglia, Cooper and Urry both expressed hope that this year’s admissions numbers do not prove to be a one-off.
Though female representation in STEM attracts much attention, Hannah Bossi GRD ’24 — the events chair for Women in Physics+ — said the conversation must include intersectional identities and that gender is only one facet of diversity.
Urry added that race, sexuality, religious identity and military service can also contribute to feelings of ostracism from mainstream physics. She added that hiring diverse faculty members should also be a priority.
“The more diverse of a community we have, the more likely we will continue to stay diverse,” Castiglia said.
The fall term for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will begin Aug. 31.