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.
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I learned that the tenure system is outdated, and that it filters out many creative and talented people.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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org). 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 email@example.com.
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.