Does today's young college woman think she can have both a successful career andm a thriving family life?
If 8,000 undergraduates at seven New England women's schools are any indication of national expectations, the answer is a qualified ''yes.''
''What they hope to do is have very good careers in prestigious professions and also have two or three children,'' says Diana Zuckerman, director of the Seven College Study based at Radcliffe College. ''Of course, you have to realize that when you're talking about a freshman's - or a senior's - goals, a lot of this is very speculative. But we're encouraged by the responses we're getting.''
Although she's quick to point out that analysis of data from the continuing five-year study is still in a preliminary stage, Dr. Zuckerman cites a number of unexpected findings:
* Women undergraduates have very similar goals, in terms of career and family , to men undergraduates.
* Less than 5 percent of the women surveyed are interested in traditional women's careers, such as teaching or social work.
* Wanting to work for social change, wanting to help people, and wanting to work with people are the three most commonly cited career aspirations of the women surveyed.
''Ten years ago women at these same schools who said they wanted to work with people wanted to be teachers and social workers,'' Dr. Zuckerman notes. ''But today, they're saying, 'If I want to help people, I'll become a doctor.' Students appear to have the same kinds of motivations they've always had, but they're directing them at different careers.''
At a time when women represent between one-fourth and one-half of the students at most graduate and professional schools, the most popular career goals of the women surveyed were medicine, law, and business, with writing and journalism also getting a lot of votes. Other preferred careers included scientist, political scientist-politician, college professor, social scientist, diplomat, and psychologist or counselor.
Asked how they would balance these careers with raising children, the women had a number of ''clear conflicts,'' according to Dr. Zuckerman. Women in the graduating class of 1981 said they wanted to work full time as soon as possible after having children, while many of the freshmen women in the class of 1985 thought they would have to take more time out to raise children, either by not working for several years or by working part-time.
''The encouraging interpretation, based on the seniors' responses, is that part of the socialization of college is to teach women that they can have both, that they don't have to choose between career and family,'' Dr. Zuckerman explains. ''The discouraging interpretation, from the freshman point of view, is that some young women coming into college today may think you can't do both.''
The Seven College Study, which began in February 1981 when the first sets of questionnaires were distributed, involves 9,000 students in the classes of 1981- 85. It's the only major longitudinal study of its kind currently under way nationally, focusing on 8,000 women attending Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley Colleges. Some 1,000 men from Harvard and Vassar also are participating in the study.
''I'm not sure how much of our results are generalizable,'' Dr. Zuckerman says, ''but given other research I've done, I think that these students aren't all that different from students at a lot of other colleges. I wouldn't say these women are representative of all women, but I think they're representative of very bright, very motivated women. These women are in the vanguard, and I think where they go, in terms of career and family interests, other women will be going.''
Comparisons of responses from men and women so far show that they describe themselves in very similar terms and that they spend similar amounts of time on school work.
''Another thing I found very encouraging is that one-third of the men, if given their choice, would like to stay home or work part-time while their children are young,'' Dr. Zuckerman adds. ''Overall, men and women are saying that they want good careers, but that they are not so caught up in the idea of being famous and making money and being important that they're neglecting the importance of family.''
The Seven College Study, which is expected to continue through 1986, already is attracting a number of inquiries from college administrators and researchers.
''Everyone knows that goals have changed so much in the last 10 years, but most schools don't have any objective measure of how they've changed,'' Dr. Zuckerman explains. ''We're dealing with the kinds of issues that students talk about among themselves, but don't necessarily tell the administration about.''