A Female Entomologist’s Perspective on Science and the Tenure System

Editor’s note: If you are a scientist (MS or PhD), please help the author by taking the survey mentioned below.

By Laurel Haavik

I am a postdoc. I’ve been one for nearly six years. Like many other postdocs, I have been working for over a decade towards my goal: a tenure-track position at a research-intensive academic institution. I enjoy research and teaching, and so a career including both seemed like a logical pursuit. I must be good enough to succeed in this pursuit, otherwise someone would have told me to opt for a different path by now. After all, only a small percentage of PhDs actually become professors. I must be pretty close to achieving this goal, because lately I’ve had several interviews – but no offers yet. By now, most of my peers have secured permanent positions, although some have gone on different paths. It must be my turn soon. I had faith in the system; confidence in myself.

Laurel Haavik

Earlier this summer, I was invited to give a talk at a conference, in a session on women in science. I accepted willingly; the subject seemed challenging and relevant. As I began to prepare, I realized I knew nothing about it. So, I did what any scientist would do: I turned to the primary literature on women in science. What I found changed my whole perspective on academia, my career, and most importantly, my life.

I learned that the tenure system is outdated, and that it filters out many creative and talented people. It was established ca. 1940, when those entering academic careers were mostly men. Assistant professors were expected to live on campus and work intensively, around the clock, on establishing themselves until achieving tenure. Sounds a lot like graduate school or a postdoc, doesn’t it? There’s not much room in that scenario for having a life outside of this pursuit.

It turns out that not much has changed about this in the intervening 70+ years. To make it worse, there are now few jobs and too many of us with graduate degrees competing to fill them. It turns out that women, more often than men, are willing to forgo their academic dreams because of this ridiculousness, in favor of something better – probably a happier life.

It seems that there are two issues. 1) Is it even possible? Women are confronted with the complications of basic biology at the very same time that they would be embarking on a demanding academic career. Most of us are well into our thirties, near the end of our child-bearing years, by the time we’re on the job search. And 2) They’re exhausted, wondering if an academic career is akin to never-ending graduate school. In the academic atmosphere, there is intense pressure to do more; for example, publish or perish, fund or famish. Talent and creativity that science badly needs is undoubtedly lost as women and men continue to opt out of this outdated system, and for very reasonable grounds.

I took a long, hard look at my career so far. I’m on my third postdoc. I’ve had two failed relationships and a third that might not make it if I have to move again. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I’m in my mid-thirties, meaning that if I want to have children, I better get situated and do it soon. Maybe academia isn’t for me after all, even though my interests, teaching, and research, are so well-aligned with the academic mission. I realized that my adult life so far — 90% career and 10% life outside of work — is a direct product of what I like to call our broken academic system. We need to better understand and voice our discontent with the broken academic system, or it won’t change.

I wondered if others feel the same way. In my field, had others thought of leaving science? And if so, why? Has the disparity in numbers of women and men graduates vs. those occupying professional positions actually changed in recent decades? Most importantly, what allows people to cope with such a rigorous career? I’ve been lucky to have had some great mentors, support from my family, and support and encouragement from the scientific community in my field. Have others had the same kinds of emotional support systems?

My study pursues these questions among three related fields: forestry, entomology, and forest entomology. In all three of these fields, women are not historically well-represented, but this has changed in recent years, especially in entomology. There are still few women in forestry. Forest entomology is a small field with a very inter-connected community, which I hope will provide an interesting contrast to its two larger, sister fields.

Please click here to participate in my study, by completing my survey.

I invite men and women at all stages in their careers, as well as those who are no longer in science, to participate. Please forward this invitation to anyone you know who is no longer in science, but completed graduate school (MS or PhD). The results of this study will be published in the primary literature.

It may take 10-15 minutes to complete. I apologize for any cross-posting of this survey. No personal identifying information will be collected as part of the survey, and your participation will be completely anonymous. Answering questions in the survey will indicate consent. Participation is voluntary and you may withdraw at any time without penalty, and there are no incentives to participate. Participation will have no effect upon your relationship with the Entomological Society of America. This study has been determined Exempt from IRB review.

Please contact me if I can provide any additional information regarding the aims of or your participation in the survey (Laurel Haavik, 479-422-4997, haavik.1@osu.edu). For questions about your rights as a participant in this study or to discuss other study-related concerns or complaints with someone who is not part of the research team, you may contact Ms. Sandra Meadows in the Office of Responsible Research Practices at 1-800-678-6251 or hsconcerns@osu.edu.

Laurel Haavik is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas, where she studies the interactions between insects and the trees that they eat. Follow her on Twitter at @ljhaavik, and check out her blog Science Shapes Lives.


  1. I’m not in the scientific profession, but in pest control profession. I am a firm believer in equal rights for everyone. With that said, I do believe that a lot of changes need to be made, not only for women but also for men as well. Like you stated that a lot of talent is bypassed because of the antiquated systems. YOU GO GIRL! I’m 100% behind you.

  2. midnightrambler956 says:

    Some of the questions were a little difficult to answer because they could be read in very different ways. For example, “In your opinion, are men and women equally represented in your field?” Well, as graduate students, they are equal or even more women than men. But, probably due to the factors you list in your article, even among new faculty the proportion of women is much lower (though in my government conservation program, it stays more or less equal at all levels).

    Also, it’s unclear to me what is meant by “emotional support” with regard to conferences. Certainly they should broadly provide reinforcement and feedback, and encourage people to work in science rather than discouraging them. But when I think of “emotional support” I think of individual counseling, which is something that’s not really the role of conferences.

  3. It is probably inherent with this medium, but for some questions the range of possible responses seemed narrow, and seemed to re-enforce the view of the survey writer. Academe and research have always been areas that provided entry to far more than could sustain themselves in the field. In this, as in other areas of endeavor, the winner-takes-all aspect has only gotten worse in the past 10-15 years. Gender bias is a double-edged sword; I have seen it work against men as well as against women. The biological clock is a very real fact of life for women; that is not likely to change. I went, as a single man, from living in a series of college towns were capstone marriages were the norm to living in a small rural community where cornerstone marriages are the norm. I nonetheless got lucky in my own marital affairs, but it did broaden my perspective.

  4. “I must be good enough to succeed in this pursuit, otherwise someone would have told me to opt for a different path by now.”

    Unfortunately this may not be the case. I mean: people that hire you as a postdoc need you for cheap-ish labor. That doesn’t mean they have an interest in ever seeing you progress beyond eternal postdoc. It’s a pyramid scheme.

  5. John Cebula says:

    The tenure system was meant to protect tenured faculty, regardless of discipline, from arbitrary dismissal. A few years ago I returned to higher education after a thirty year hiatus. Coincidentally, my three children started college. I am astounded that so much actual teaching at the college level is now being done by adjuncts–75% was one figure I ran across (it is closer to 60%-65% at my school). As far as I can tell, very few schools even have a tenure track available.

  6. Took Another Road says:

    I did more than one postdoc, too. I got to do some interesting things; I learned a few new things; I chugged out a few more papers; I gave a few more talks at state, national, and international meetings; and the phone never rang once. After 10 years of trying I gave up applying for tenure track university jobs. I waited for the wave of retirements that never came – or when people did retire their positions were frozen or eliminated. Now I’m a mid-level manager in a small government agency, doing things only tangentially entomological. But I’ve got a job.

    It has been a bit upsetting, though, to watch over the years as other people have expanded on the findings I published — following up on ideas and hypotheses that I could not because I never landed the position that would let me continue my work.

    Perhaps things would change if it were not necessary for those who do have the professorial positions to continually secure newer and more grant funds, which require temporary workers (grad students and post docs) to get the work done (while Dr. Professor is busy writing the next grant proposal).

  7. What does it mean to “leave science”? I think that question, and the specific way in which it is asked by folks who are (still) in academics, is totally loaded and leads to all sorts of misconceptions and misplaced feelings of a perceived loss when a career decision takes you outside of the career track where you always envisioned yourself.

    I left research and academics six or seven years ago and have neither regretted it nor looked back. Among other things, I help build agricultural capacity in over 30 countries and, without a doubt, have a greater impact that I ever would have had in the career I worked toward in grad school. That said, I never knew that jobs like mine existed until I realized that academia wasn’t for me and actually started looking for alternatives.

    It’s a big world out there and you don’t have to work in a classroom or a university to use your science education in a rewarding way.

  8. Rob has a point. In addition, scientific research also exists outside the world of the university professorships. Many very fulfilling opportunities exist in government and private labs.

  9. I am of the opinion, based on my own career experience (field conservation ecology), that these troubles extend far, far beyond the university system, encompassing a whole lot of the science and environmental sector. Though it stems a lot from the way universities themselves are acting.

    There has been such an enormous push to get youth not only into university itself, but into science, and especially the life sciences. Universities across North America have swollen to bursting at the seams compared to 50 years ago. The science student has become little more than a juicy commodity to be fed on by the university – class sizes have expanded, graduating classes are enormous, and students have been pushed ever-more towards getting advanced degrees to ‘out-compete’ their brethren. The surge in advanced degrees has (from what I’ve heard) de-valued grad students to work-horses, expecting them to shun life in favor of pumping out papers and doing brain-intensive science gymnastics – the new ‘grunt work’. Obviously there is enormous variation, but many people have felt this acutely. The whole academic system has seen a glut and de-valuing of students and their work, not to mention their lives. The system as a whole doesn’t really seem to care, especially since it’s staggeringly lucrative.

    Given the hoards of students, whose initial thought is “i wanna be a tenured professor” due to knee-jerk response, your coveted tenured prof. position is the first golden trophy in a step-wise series of flooded job markets, which the universities have been ignoring completely. What’s worse – for ever step down you go, the less likely an MSc or PhD will help you, as you quickly become considered over-qualified for the entry-level jobs people have found can be done by BSc’s for less money. That’s if the positions are even being filled, which – due to lazy funding and economic downturns – is not even guaranteed when the older generation retires. Don’t even think about “just getting” a more advanced position in many cases… due to the flood of applicants, employers can easily be picky enough to look for people with experience already – experience outside of your research zone, which that you likely lack. I would say that of all the people I was good friends with in University, none work in a professorship, and only half stayed in science-related fields at all. And we were an academically-strong group. Many, many friends-of-friends opted out of science in favor of life. I was contacted a few months ago by my university, asking me how my career was going for statistics purposes. Apparently I was one of the only grads spoken to who did not completely demoralize the poor undergrad making the phone call from the university.

    I don’t mean to be a downer… rather, to connect this pattern with the larger world. People (like me) do get permanent work in the sciences. But we spend years of our early career squashing our personal lives, fighting tooth and claw for it. I went contract-to-contract for 5 years after graduating, and am still not 100% full time.

    This is a two-fold shout-out:

    To the universities: for all that is holy, please re-assess your provincial/state job markets, and limit your advertizing/intake for undergrads in those disciplines that are weakly employed. Who am i kidding though, that would mean making way less money.

    To students/prospective students: jobs in the life sciences are stacked against you. You might luck-out, but be prepared for a bumpy ride for several years after graduating. If you don’t like grasping for funding or going through 8 rounds of job application in 5 years, you might re-consider your career stream.

  10. Margaret Kosmala says:

    “In your immediate family” — do you mean the family I grew up in? Or does my husband count?

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