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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Even More on Women (and Men) Opting Out of Academic Science

Women scientists in the United Kingdom find academic careers far less attractive than do their male counterparts, according to a report, ‘The chemistry PhD: The impact on women’s retention’, that was issued jointly by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) and the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008. No surprise there for people who have been following the research into the experiences and aspirations of women scientists on this side of the Pond. A peripheral comment Curt Rice, vice president for research at the University of Tromsø in Norway, recently made on the report at Inside Higher Ed, however, brought the document to my attention. 

The British study arrived at the same conclusions as the researchers whom I quoted on the subject elsewhere on Science Careers this very month: many women qualified for careers in academic science decide against them because of the conflict they see between pursuing a faculty position and having a family. There’s at least one difference between the American and British findings, though: ‘The chemistry PhD’ uses the term “repellant” to describe how some women chemists perceive the “‘all-consuming’ nature of a career in academia.” The American researchers used milder terms to convey the distaste that many of their female subjects expressed at the prospect of competing for a faculty post and for tenure.

Rice is particularly concerned about another of the British report’s findings, which he finds “alarming”: Early in their Ph.D. education, over 70% of women and over 60% of men hope for research careers, whether in academe or industry. By the time they are nearing the end of their Ph.D. programs, those hoping for academic research careers amount to 12% of the women and 21% of the men.
I can certainly understand his dismay at the gender gap in the percentage of new Ph.D.s wanting to persevere into academic careers. But from another standpoint, these figures look like good news. 

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. 

Rice finds the situation “alarming”, he explains, because he fears that “universities will not survive as research institutions…because we have no reason to believe we are attracting the best and the brightest.” Rice puts a great emphasis on the necessity to improve the experience of Ph.D. students and recognizes young scientists’ concerns about having to go through a string of postdoc positions and face competitiveness in this stage of their careers. But did he miss the part of the report that mentions the “fierce competition to secure a permanent post” in academe? Or the passage that explains that this level of competition exists because “there are many more PhD students and post-docs than there are permanent [faculty] posts”? Isn’t it the universities themselves that admit students in numbers they know far exceed the academic career opportunities available to their alumni?

So why shouldn’t we cheer the fact that young people appear to realize that they should adjust their aspirations to the reality of the circumstances they will face? Isn’t it the responsibility of universities to prepare their students for the world that they will find rather than one that their professors wish existed? 

The fact that the majority of Ph.D. students understand that they will not make their careers as faculty researchers-despite the prevalent pro-academe bias in so many university departments-doesn’t strike me as “alarming” but as encouraging, even a sign of progress. It means that these soon-to-be Ph.D.s can devote their energies not to pursuing a goal that will only end in frustration and disappointment but to making the informed plans that will, one hopes, lead them to careers and lives that they find satisfying and fulfilling.