Tag Archives: leaky pipeline

Notes on the leaky pipeline: realism or disillusionment? [Updated]

[Update in italics: May 3, 2012] After I wrote this post PLoS ONE published a paper that fits nicely with the points I was making.] 

Beryl Benderly’s blog post over at Science Careers caught my eye yesterday because she mentions a 2008 report from the UK about the retention of women  chemistry PhDs in academia. As expected, the women are moving away from academe. By the end of their PhDs only 12% of women want academic research careers in chemistry compared with 70% who are in the first year of the PhD. Those are compared with a drop from 60% to 21% for men.  (A disclaimer: I write regularly for Science Careers, but I wasn’t involved in this blog post in any way.)

Beryl takes a positive spin on this data:

The figures are still way above the percentage of new Ph.D.s who have any realistic chance of landing a job on the tenure track (at least in the United States). Thinking about the welfare of the young scientists who have devoted many years to preparing for their careers and are about to begin them, it does not appear “alarming” to me that they have traded in their formerly unrealistic notion about the possibility of landing an academic post.

I’m not so positive based on my anecdotal experiences. As a female chemistry PhD who flew the academic coop immediately after graduation (more on that here, here, and here), I’m one of those safe people, someone who walked away from the bench and hasn’t looked back. So as soon as young PhDs hear my story, they often delve into their own questions about the research life. What do I often hear? Confusion, disillusionment, and questions about how they can use their science in productive ways. A realistic picture of their academic prospects is a first step, but I’m not sure that the awareness provides a  bridge between their PhD and how they might use it in the workforce.

This particular report talks about the role of isolation in the choice to leave academia. If you’re in an academic setting and plotting a nontraditional career move, that decision often increases that feeling of isolation. So in some cases, a young scientist has to make their immediate professional social situation worse in order to make it better.  So step one is often finding a mentor or a like-minded support system and learning new skills, but all while you’re trying to maintain a presence in your laboratory. That’s easier said than done.

I realize that young PhDs who are happy in academia are not seeking me out, so I probably have an unusually gloomy picture. But I don’t think the academic system has addressed how it can broaden the career skills of young PhDs and support skilled scientists who become interested in policy, business, law, or education. I recognize that building a satisfying career involves incredibly personal decisions, and no career counselor or academic department can map that out for you. But better support for career development could help more PhDs who opt out of academia or research feel like extensions of their scientific community rather than renegades.

The PLoS ONE paper describes trends that I’ve noticed anecdotally. PhD students are less interested in the traditional academic research track by the end of their degrees. At the same time, they aren’t necessarily prepared for,  interested in, or aware of the jobs that might be available that would capitalize on their skills. Faculty members seem to be relatively neutral about alternative paths, and what I’ve noticed talking with some young scientists is this general sense that they want to do “something else” but without any sense of what “something else” might look like.

Figure 5. Share of students finding particular work activities interesting/uninteresting. Respondents indicated how interesting they would find each of six kinds of work when thinking about the future.


And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s what the researchers have to say about the way that student interests, encouragement, and career opportunities aren’t lining up.  (Emphasis is mine).

Second, respondents across all three major fields feel that their advisors and departments strongly encourage academic research careers while being less encouraging of other career paths. Such strong encouragement of academic careers may be dysfunctional if it exacerbates labor market imbalances or creates stress for students who feel that their career aspirations do not live up to the expectations of their advisors. In the context of prior findings that students feel well-informed about the characteristics of academic careers but less so about careers outside of academia [17], our results suggest that PhD programs should more actively provide information and training experiences that allow students to learn about a broader range of career options, including those that are currently less encouraged. Richer information and a more neutral stance by advisors and departments will likely improve career decision-making and has the potential to simultaneously improve labor market imbalances as well as future career satisfaction [23], [24]. Advisors’ apparent emphasis on encouraging academic careers does not necessarily reflect an intentional bias, however. Rather, it may reflect that advisors themselves chose an academic career and have less experience with other career options. Thus, administrators, policy makers, and professional associations may have to complement the career guidance students’ advisors and departments provide.

So let’s figure out how to bridge the disillusionment. I can’t think of a bigger waste of scientific talent than to have young researchers floundering because they don’t know how to bring their skills into a useful and productive career.

As a postscript, check out my fellow blogger Chemjobber, who doesn’t pull any punches about all things job- and chemistry-related.


A leaky pipeline postmortem

I was just a couple of years into my chemistry Ph.D., when a good friend forwarded me a copy of an article about this MIT report: A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT. I wasn’t  surprised when I read about the inequalities in resources and that many of the women faculty had felt marginalized. In many ways, I was relieved: an institution  was acknowledging the problem and working on making the path for women scientists better.

From the introduction of that report:

In the summer of 1994, three tenured women faculty in the School of Science
began to discuss the quality of their professional lives at MIT. In the course of
their careers these women had come to realize that gender had probably
caused their professional lives to differ significantly from those of their male
colleagues. Interestingly, they had never discussed the issue with one
another, and they were even uncertain as to whether their experiences were
unique, their perceptions accurate. This situation was about to change
dramatically. It was soon clear to the women that their experiences formed
a pattern. Curious to know whether other women in the School of Science
shared these experiences, they drew up a list of all the tenured women faculty
in the School of Science in order to conduct an informal poll.

Flash forward  more than 10 years, and my personal perspective on the issues of women in science has shifted. I see more acknowledgement of the subtle issues of bias, but at the same time I made the personal decision to leave the bench and pursue a science writing career. And every time I see another report on women in academic science, I ask myself: Is it becoming any easier for women to pursue a research career? Or are we just rehashing the same issues of subconscious bias and what women have to do to have their ideas heard and recognized?

But this week, a new paper takes fresh look at the leaky pipeline. In some ways, they report good news: less institutional bias against women in science because of their gender. For the most part women receive just as many job interviews, opportunities for fellowships, and don’t seem to face bias barriers in the review of their publications. Instead, they report that “choice” is at the root of the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of academic science:

This situation is caused mainly by women’s choices, both freely made and constrained by biology and society, such as choices to defer careers to raise children, follow spouses’ career moves, care for elderly parents, limit job searches geographically, and enhance work-home balance. Some of these choices are freely made; others are constrained and could be changed (3).

The research gets uncomfortably close to the reasons that I left the bench. To make it clear, I’m incredibly happy with my decision to leave research. Any lingering mixed feelings come from my belief that women can and should be able to pursue research careers. As a woman who leaked out of the research pipeline, I sometimes worry that there won’t be enough role models and opportunities for the women who want to stay and who have strong contributions to make.

And the researchers voice my core fear:

To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem. However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women’s talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem.

At the same time that I was making my decision to leave the bench, I was working at a hands-on science museum. Some of my best days were working with young children who were excited about discovering science, particularly girls, and their mothers who gushed that they were so excited that their daughters were developing interests that they’d shied away from. I want those girls, if they choose, to have a future in science.

When I look back, I didn’t see where a research career would offer me enough flexibility to pursue my other interests in life. Five years into my Ph.D., my next step looked like several more years of long hours as a postdoc. An interdisciplinary person by nature, the demands of research had shut out my other interests, writing, language, culture, art– and, maybe, one day, a family of my own. I’d tried on the lifestyle, and it didn’t fit. All of life involves choices, and not every Ph.D. can or should stay in the academic laboratory. But restricting research science to a system that only rewards those who pursue it singlemindedly is also shortsighted. I hope the academic system can embrace part-time tenure track arrangements or other innovations that might make the research track more attractive. If every woman in science looks at the situation and comes to the same conclusion that I did, science, medicine and technology will be the worse for it.

Reference: Ceci, SJ and Williams, WM. Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proc. Natl Acad. Soc. USA. doi:10.1073/pnas.1014871108

Image credit: Kris Griffon