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Religion vs. science: Shaping graduate students’ identities

Could graduate students’ religious beliefs prevent them from gaining confidence as scientists? A West Virginia University sociologist is exploring the conflicts between graduate students’ religious and professional identities and how those conflicts influence their career goals.  

Christopher Scheitle
Christopher Scheitle

“There is an inherent interest in what scientists think about religion. There is a long tradition of examining beliefs and attitudes of scientists—even going back to the early 20th century. Most of that work looks at professors, which shows that, generally speaking, scientists in universities are not particularly religious, especially in comparison to the general public,” said Christopher Scheitle, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “There has also been some work looking at religiosity of science students as undergraduates, which showed that there aren’t any differences among science students compared to other college students. At the undergrad level, there doesn’t seem to be much going on, but when you get to faculty, there is this huge gap.”  

Scheitle hopes to bridge that gap by exploring the experiences of religious graduate students and their development as scientists.

He explains that a student's religion could make it more difficult for him or her to develop an identity and confidence as a scientist.

“Research has shown that the persistence and success of scientists-in-training depends as much on their social psychological development as their scientific training and education,” Scheitle said. “Science students must come to think of themselves as a scientist and gain confidence in the scientist role.”

Supported by a two-year, $162,000 National Science Foundation grant, Scheitle will survey and interview graduate students from around the U.S. studying biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and sociology.

“The idea behind the project is to see if and how being religious as a graduate student shapes professional outcomes, specifically how confident students are as scientists, how much students identify as scientists and what are students’ career goals,” Scheitle said.  

He is exploring how religious students’ perceptions of stigma and stereotypes against their identities will impact their confidence as researchers.  

“Religious students might disproportionately perceive, whether accurate or not, negative interactions: hostility, isolation, antagonism or just feeling left out,” Scheitle said. 

The choices made on the ‘life’ side of work-life balance could also affect graduate students’ perceptions.

“Religiosity often fuels life goals and values—having a family, the size of your family, when you want to get married, have kids, things like that,” Scheitle said. “There’s a lot of literature on how religion affects marriage and childbearing, and there is research on work-life balance and the conflicts experienced by scientists. If you put those two things together, it makes sense that potentially religious graduate students, because of their religious values, might either come into conflict or simply want different things with their careers and professional lives.”  

Scheitle will also investigate how graduate students’ social networks influence their religious and scholarly identities.  

Ellory Dabbs
Ellory Dabbs

“Starting to identify with any profession, especially science, is very much a social experience. You come into graduate school and have a cohort which, for better or for worse, becomes your whole world for a while. One of the latent purposes of that is to solidify your identity as a scientist. If everyone you know and everyone you are hanging out with is from the scientific world, you start to become a strong part of it,” Scheitle said. “If you’re a religious graduate student, you might have social ties or networks that are more open—you’re not just hanging out with your cohort but also with a religious student group or your congregational family. Having this more open, diverse social network might serve as an impediment to fully identifying as a scientist and putting 100 percent of your identity into science.”

Ellory Dabbs, a first-year sociology doctoral student, will assist Scheitle with the study.

“I hope this project will prepare me for the future by improving my skills across the board—statistical, analytical and social,” said Dabbs, a Johnstown, Pennsylvania, native. “This project offers many opportunities to learn and grow as a professional, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.”