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We present a mathematical model to describe the optical phase shift induced by polymer dispersed liquid crystals (PDLCs) on light impinging transversely on the sample. PDLCs are dispersions of liquid crystal microdroplets in a polymeric binder. Droplets appear as optically uniaxial spheres randomly oriented so that the material is optically isotropic. The application of an external electric field results in a reorientation of the liquid crystal and therefore in an electrically controllable optical uniaxicity of the material. The model is discussed by comparison with experimental data and with previous theory [F. Basile, F. Bloisi, L. Vicari, and F. Simoni, Phys. Rev. E 48, 432 (1993)]. © 1997 American Institute of Physics.