Science Careers Blog


Recently Science Careers commented on Mismatch, a provocative and persuasive new book that examines the effects of giving large admissions preferences to minority college students. One of the unintended consequences of such measures, write authors Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., is to steer minority students away from majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This happens, they argue, because large preferences encourage students to attend colleges where their academic credentials place them toward the bottom of their college classes. Science majors, however, overwhelmingly come from the upper end of their college classes, regardless of where they go to college. Students admitted with large preferences--as many African American and Hispanic students are--are therefore deprived of the realistic opportunity to earn STEM degrees.

On 9 October 2012, by coincidence the same day that Mismatch hit the bookstores, the IZA Journal of Labor Economics published "What happens after enrollment? An analysis of the time path of racial differences in GPA and major choice." This study of Duke University students carried out by three Duke professors--economists Peter Arcidiacono and Estaban Aucejo and sociologist Ken Spenner--provides further evidence to support Sander and Taylor's argument. It tracked two classes of Duke undergraduates in all fields of the schools of arts and sciences and of engineering--a total of 1563 students--over the 4 years of their collegiate careers.  It found "dramatic shifts by black students from initial interest in the natural sciences, engineering and economics to majors in the humanities and social sciences."

Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced the creation of a new $26 million funding mechanism, the Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge, that will fund approximately 12 projects designed to spur innovation-based manufacturing and leverage technology into new companies and jobs. Funding for the program comes from six federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration, the Small Business Administration, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Last month, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, part of the National Science Foundation, released a report called "Diversity in Science and Engineering Employment in Industry." I took a look and learned something new -- or maybe more accurately, the numbers caused me to look at things in a new way.

Not only are minority scientists and engineers under-represented in their fields, the proportion of minorities trained in science who stay in science for a career is also smaller.

Counting everyone with a science or engineering degree (bachelor's, master's, doctorate, or professional), 30.2% work in scientific or engineering (S&E) occupations. The rest work in either "S&E-Related" occupations (including, for example, doctors and nurses: 24.4%) or in "Non-S&E occupations" (45.4%).

That number varies a lot by group. Asians with S&E degrees, for example, stay in S&E occupations far more than any other group: 45.6% of them work in S&E fields. Among Asian men, it's 53.5%; this is the only subgroup where more than half of those with S&E degrees were working in S&E fields.

For those who described themselves as Black or African American, the number is 22.4%. Among Black or African-American women, the number is 15.5%.  For Hispanics, it's 24.6%, and for Hispanic women, 14.4%. In the American Indian or Alaska Native category, 24.9% of those with S&E degrees continue to work in S&E professions, and 18.7% of women. Among those with disabilities, 17.9% of those with S&E degrees work in S&E professions, and 15.7% of women. Across all demographics, just 18.1% of women with S&E degrees work in S&E fields.  

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having an S&E degree and working outside of science; work is a very personal thing and it's important to find the right fit. And I won't speculate on what drives these differences. But when percentages vary this widely -- when Asian men with S&E degrees stay in science with nearly four times the frequency of Hispanic women --  powerful forces are at work.

Rwanda, already recognized by the United Nations as East Africa's high-tech hub, is looking to boost its regional influence by partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to offer graduate degrees in engineering. Rwandan and university officials today announced the creation of Carnegie Mellon Rwanda, an academic program based in Kigali they hope will offer advanced engineering and management training, as well as international internships and job placement, primarily to students from Rwanda and its East African neighbors. It will be the first program to offer a graduate degree granted by a foreign university on African soil.

The program initially will offer a master of science degree in information technology, and more academic tracks will be added over time. A Ph.D. program has been proposed but that proposal isn't definite, says Pradeep K. Khosla, head of CMU's College of Engineering.

Carnegie Mellon Rwanda will aim to enroll approximately 40 students in its first semester in fall 2012, Khosla says, and then to raise that number to 150 by 2017. The program will use the same admission and academic standards as Carnegie Mellon's main campus in Pittsburgh. Khosla says the program will look to hire top-tier professors from all over the world, though he expects finding faculty could still be a big challenge.

But will Rwanda be prepared to offer jobs to a surge of new highly trained engineers? Khosla says that while that is indeed a concern, Rwanda is better prepared than most other African nations to do so. "Are they poised [to take advantage of the new engineers] today? Probably not," he says. "But are they on the right trajectory? I think so."

Rwanda is experiencing an economic boom, with sustained GDP growth of 8% annually over the past five years, numerous new telecom businesses, and an ambitious federal project to lay fiber-optic cable across much of the country. Khosla predicts that Rwanda's burgeoning wireless and mobile networks will see the most immediate benefit from the new engineers.

Khosla hopes Carnegie Mellon Rwanda will serve as an example to other universities, encouraging them to invest in degree-granting programs in Africa to help African nations build modern infrastructures. "There are a billion people [in Africa]," he says. "The world will not be better off if they're left behind."

Many studies point to a lack of representation by minorities in science and engineering fields, but the roots of that inequality are hard to trace. A new, non-peer-reviewed report finds that, contrary to the claims of some "white rights" activists, grants and scholarships are fairly evenly distributed by ratio of racial prevalence in undergraduate education. 

However, the picture changes somewhat when looking into the details. The report found that white students are significantly more likely to receive private and merit-based scholarships than are minority students, while minority students are slightly more likely to receive need-based financial aid. Since 2003, while both need-based and private scholarship funding has increased, funding for private scholarships has increased at a faster rate, suggesting that the gap between whites' and minorities' financial aid opportunities could be widening -- not good news for those looking to improve minority representation in science.

Report author Mark Kantrowitz, a stats analyst and publisher of the financial aid sites and (which published the report), looked at data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which collects data every 4 years on how students pay for college. He found that minority students make up 38% of the total undergraduate population in the United States and account for 40% of need-based grant and scholarship funding -- reflecting the fact that minority students more frequently come from impoverished backgrounds than their white peers -- but only 24% of merit-based scholarships. White students, on the other hand, make up 62% of the total undergrad population and receive 59% of need-based financial aid and 76% of the merit-based funding.

That inequality doesn't reflect explicit racism, Kantrowitz argues, but instead the propensity for donors, who are more likely to be white, to offer scholarships for activities like golf, archery, equestrian sports, water sports, and winter sports, all of which tend to attract more white participants than minority participants. "The sponsors of rodeo scholarships aren't motivated by a desire to indirectly discriminate against minority students; they just like to promote rodeo," Kantrowitz writes. "But the net result is that private scholarships as a whole disproportionately select for Caucasian students."

When you combine students' total odds of receiving financial aid, the "race myth" -- that is, that minority students receive more than their fair share of financial aid -- falls apart, Kantrowitz concludes. In fact, white students come out slightly more likely overall to receive financial aid of some kind. To correct the imbalance, he writes, more money is needed for need-based grants and scholarships.

The funders of rodeo scholarships and others may not mean to promote institutional inequality, but it does add to the series of cumulative advantages that allow white students to enjoy more and better educational and career opportunities than minority students. An independent study for example recently pointed out that white applicants to the National Institutes of Health are 10 percentage points more likely to receive an R01 grant than their black counterparts. These and other studies suggest that policymakers need to take a hard look at the systems in place to find ways to put future minority scientists on more equal footing.

Hat tip to Insider Higher Ed.

Last week, Science published a study that found that black biomedical scientists are 10 percentage points less likely than their white peers to receive an R01 research grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). (See Science Careers's discussion of what that means for the career prospects of black scientists.) And earlier this month, a government study found that men out-earn women in the sciences by about 12% and outnumber women in the science, technology, math, and engineering fields by about 24%.

NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other U.S. agencies have funneled large sums of money into programs designed to reduced such disparities, but clearly minority scientists still face significant challenges to their professional success. What will it take to achieve real equality in the sciences?

Science Live will host a live chat on Thursday, August 25, 3:00 - 4:00 p.m. EDT to explore that question with two former NIH researchers: Laure Haak, chief science officer at the scientific consulting firm Discovery Logic, and Chad Womack, founder, president and chair of TBED21, a technology and education development company.

Join in and let your voice be heard!

I'd like to take the occasion of the International Women's Day to share one thought that has stuck with me since I heard Alice Huang's presidential address at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science and Science Careers) in Washington D.C. 

One of the points Huang made during her talk was that one can help women to succeed in traditionally male-dominated disciplines by "understanding the diverse motivations that make a student commit to a life in science." Huang described in particular how faculty at Carnegie Mellon University's School Of Computer Science were able to solve women-retention problems in a course on algorithms by reframing it. 

"The faculty initially did not think that the students who dropped out could hack it," Huang said. "But, on closer examination... they found that women had lost interest because they did not see what algorithms were good for or why they needed to learn how to design a variety of complicated algorithms." The faculty decided to focus the first session of the course on how algorithms may be used to help social causes. "Once this began, the retention rate for women increased so much so that now all professors spend the first class introducing their courses by discussing the applied relevance of the material that will be presented," she added. "I admit, I was really relieved to find that the women could hack it." 

Huang's example of how important it is to tap into women's interests was echoed by a research paper published earlier that month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. In one of the studies reported in the paper, first-author Sylvie Kerger of the University of Luxembourg asked 134 boys and 160 girls, aged 14, to rate their interest in different applied topics without being told that they pertained to scientific fields like IT, statistics, and physics. "There was clear evidence that applying female friendly topics" -- specifically, providing a real social context or relating it to a real issue, like forest decline -- "increased girls' interest in these scientific disciplines," Kreger said in a press release. In contrast, boys' interest decreased when this was done.

Assuming that men and women continue to have predominantly different interests in how their research is applied later in life, here's my thought: There are differences between individuals of the same gender of course, but couldn't women scientists use these differences to find a niche for themselves that their male colleagues may not necessarily have thought of? It is still difficult for women to work in male-dominated fields in many ways, but the culture has changed drastically in the last several decades and there is now more space for new ideas and individuality. Couldn't what has traditionally been a disadvantage -- being a minority -- be turned into an untapped source of creativity at the time of developing a rewarding research career? 

One example that jumps to mind is Begoña Vitoriano Villanueva of the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain (whom I've profiled previously on Science Careers).  Of course Vitoriano has male colleagues, but she's developed an unusual career for herself designing computer tools to support humanitarian aid organizations and volunteering in university cooperation and rural development projects.

Here's a bit of Mad-Men-era fun: a page from a 1960 employment manual for Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), courtesy of Kawtar Hafidi and ANL's wisttalk mailing list, on which I lurk. (I hope they don't throw me off the list when they see this.) Employees, the manual states, are allowed to work overtime, but if they expect to work more than 60 hours in a week, they'll need to make arrangements with the Business Manager's office first. That's the rule for employees.

Having laid out the rules for employees, the manual moves on to a separate category, female employees. Read on, and click on the image below to view a larger, easier-to-read version:

Screen shot 2011-02-16 at 12.57.07 PM.pngI'd love to know how many women Argonne employed on the scientific staff in 1960 and what working there (or at any national lab) was like for them.
Timothy Cordes graduated as valedictorian of his class at the University of Notre Dame. He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin (UW) where he recently earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. in biomolecular chemistry. He is currently a resident physician in the psychiatry department while fulfilling his role as a husband and father. Tim is blind. That this uncommon constellation of accomplishments can occur is notable. Ten or twenty years ago, it would have been impossible.

Twenty years ago, while serving as a faculty pre-med advisor at Harvard College, I was assigned a candidate for medical school admission: a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, an outstanding student, a basketball player, personable, and impressive in every way. He was a "dream" candidate with one exception: He had been born deaf. Our efforts to gain his admission to medical school were a nightmare. Despite personal communications to medical school deans and admission directors, as well as letters from his professors attesting to his abilities, all doors were closed. He entered a Ph.D. program in pathology at the University of Pennsylvania and, following postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), now does exciting research in the field of congenital deafness.
Recently, I was reminded of this experience when I sat down for a mentoring session with a second year medical student here in Madison. "I'll need to see your lips," the student cautioned me as we began our conversation, "I'm congenitally deaf."

Suzanne Lucas, a blogger and former human resources manager, answers a question from a reader today on the management Web site BNet about the wisdom of telling a potential employer about health problems. Lucas's short answer is "don't do it," at least not right away.

Lucas's reader is applying for jobs that require a college transcript, and in this case, the transcript shows the reader got less than stellar grades in some classes. The reason: medical problems. Also in this case, the reader's most recent grades were high and the mediocre grades received during the medical problems were in subjects unrelated to the work being applied for. A hiring manager, Lucas says, probably would not care about those mediocre grades, so the reader would be better off not mentioning them.

Lucas also addresses the broader question of leveling with a potential employer about chronic medical problems, noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in hiring because of disabilities, and that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. However, a study published in 2000 by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, reported that the hiring of people with disabilities actually decreased after the passage of ADA. Lucas says some observers attribute that decline partly to the cost of meeting those reasonable-accommodations requirements.

Lucas says applicants with chronic health issues should concentrate first on getting the job. Given the continuing tough job market, you don't want to give a potential employer any reason not to hire you. Once on the job for a while, you can disclose the health problems to the human-resources department, who can advise your supervisors on any accommodations you may need. By that time, says Lucas, it will probably be too late for management to fret much about the hiring decision.

Science Careers devoted a June 2004 feature to health issues in the scientific workplace, including a Mind Matters column by Irene S. Levine on disclosure of health problems. Levine, like Lucas, notes that the issue is not always clear cut, but offers a series of steps people with chronic health problems can take, including consultations with the employer's human resources department.

According to the Arizona Republic, two universities in Mexico canceled their academic exchange programs with University of Arizona (UA) as a result of a new Arizona law that allows police to question individuals they feel might be in the U.S. illegally.  Among the canceled exchanges is a program for scientific researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the country's largest university.

In other fallout from the new law, an organization of Hispanic and Native American scientists removed Phoenix, Arizona as a potential site for its 2012 conference.

Francisco Marmolejo, UA's assistant vice president for western hemisphere programs, told the Phoenix newspaper last Friday that UNAM would no longer send students on exchange programs due to fears of harassment from authorities. The Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, a state college in eastern Mexico, also canceled its exchange programs with UA for similar reasons.

Two exchange programs with UA were immediately canceled, including a delegation of 10 scientific researchers from UNAM. The other immediate cancellation involved a program for nursing students from the San Luis Potosí institution.

As we reported two weeks ago, UA's president Robert Shelton sent a letter to to the campus community after Arizona's governor signed the law, known as SB 1070. In the letter, Shelton told of students who initially chose to attend UA, but changed their plans after the law passed, as well as his concerns about the campus's international community. According to the Arizona Republic, UA has some 200 students from Mexico.

SACNAS, a 37-year-old organization made up of scientists and science students of Hispanic and native American origin removed Phoenix from consideration as a site for its 2012 annual conference. In a letter to Arizona's governor, SACNAS president president Jose Dolores Garcia said, "the immigration law SB1070 will make the state inhospitable to people of color, especially Hispanics."

The Arizona Republic reports that the National Association of Black Accountants, the International Communications Association and the National Urban League, and the oldest African-American Greek-lettered fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, have already canceled scheduled conventions in Phoenix because of the law.

Consistent with the plan we mentioned 2 weeks ago on the Science Careers blog, the House of Representatives lumped much of their student-loan bill into the package of fixes to the health care reform bill. Yesterday, both the Senate and the House passed this package, which now goes to President Obama for his signature. But in order to get the deal made, aid to community colleges in the original student loan bill had to be cut.

Combining the bills gave Democratic lawmakers a way to bypass a threatened filibuster of the bill by Senate Republicans. The combined bill used a legislative procedure called reconciliation that's reserved for budgetary measures, which, under the Senate rules, allows legislation to be passed with a simple majority. The strategy helped get the bill passed, but it required cutting back on some of the financial aid provisions in the student loan bill, to meet complex reconciliation rules. For example, today's New York Times says the student loan bill had originally proposed a new $10 billion program to increase community college enrollments for improving skills in the American workforce. But those funds were among the spending excised to keep the entire package on target. Instead, section 1501 of the final bill authorizes $2.5 billion for job-training grant programs over the next 5 years.

The original bill's main provisions remain intact, however. The federal government will now loan money either directly to students or through educational institutions. The law ends the role of private banks in originating student loans. While private companies can still play a role in servicing loans, they lobbied strenuously against this bill. Even Science Careers received some messages from the industry.

The restructured program will convert savings from loan subsidies and guarantees to private lenders into new Pell grants for low- and moderate-income students.  As we noted two weeks ago, however, the original estimate of $87 billion in savings over 10 years has shrunk  as institutions have gotten a head start, substituting direct lending for private loans in anticipation of the bill's passing. The New York Times puts the savings estimate at $61 billion, with most of the savings ($36 billion) going to fund Pell grants.

March is Women's History Month, and this week in particular there have been some exciting highlights of women in science.

For starters, today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging about women in science. Bloggers can register their posts with the Finding Ada Web site, where anyone can view a map or a list of the posts by the women profiled in the posts. This list will no doubt update throughout the day and perhaps even longer. (Note: Organizers of today's event note on Twitter that they're victims of their own success -- their Web site keeps crashing from all the visitors. If the links above don't work, check back later.)

I was pleased to see on the list a post from SarahAskew's Sarah Kendrew on Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who heads the optical instrumentation unit at the space firm Astrium. I had the pleasure of meeting Maggie at the U.K. launch of the She Is An Astronomer campaign, and we later profiled her in Science Careers. She's one of those people for whom the term "infectious enthusiasm" was invented. Sarah's post definitely confirms that I'm not the only one who thinks that.

Maggie also made The Independent's list of today's women trailblazers in science, published earlier this week. Another scientist on The Independent's list jumped out at me: Ottoline Leyser, a plant biologist at the University of York. Ottoline is a passionate scientist who is also committed to career development. I'm mentioning her because she received the Royal Society's Rosalind Franklin Award in 2003, and the project she did with the prize money was to assemble a book, "Mothers in Science: 64 Ways To Have it All" (links to full-text PDF of the book). I think this is such an excellent idea and a great resource.

Also this week, the Royal Society published a list of the most influential women in the history of science. The list includes Mary Anning, Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, and Anne McLaren, to name a few.

Take a look at the lists above -- perhaps you'll be inspired to write a blog post of your own about a woman in science who has inspired you. You can also see who's tweeting about Ada Lovelace Day by searching Twitter for the hashtag #ALD10. There are so many great posts out there this week on women in science that I can't link to them all, but feel free to post your favorites in the comments below.

Women scientists do about twice as much of core household chores as do their male counterparts, according to a study published in the January-February issue of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. "Understanding how housework relates to women's careers is one new piece in the puzzle of how to attract more women to science," the authors write.

I heard about this study yesterday from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which you should read, too. I'll hit the high points of the study here:

Study authors Londa Schiebinger and Shannon K. Gilmartin used data from the Managing Academic Careers Survey, which was administered to full-time faculty at 13 U.S. research universities in 2006-2007. Respondents included 1222 tenured and tenure-track faculty -- 910 men and 312 women -- in the natural sciences who indicated that they are partnered.

Women respondents say they perform 54% of the core household tasks (cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning), adding up to about 20 hours a week. Men scientists reported they do about 28% of those tasks. (We can speculate who is doing the remaining 18% of housework -- paid help, children, etc. -- but I think it's safe to assume that not all the women who took the survey are married to the men who took the survey, therefore those numbers won't add up.) When it comes to parental responsibilities, women scientists report they do 54% of the parenting labor, compared with 36% for men.

The authors also looked at the relationship between scientists' productivity (defined as number of published articles) and employing others to do housework. They found that, regardless of gender, salary, and rank, partnered scientists who hire outside help for housework are more productive.

The authors' recommendation, then, is that employers should offer financial support for housework as part of their benefits packages. They point out that some European companies offer such a benefit. I know at least one fellowship scheme here in England (the Royal Society's Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships) includes funds for childcare.

Some of the commenters on the Chronicle's news article think this is a ridiculous suggestion:  "I can't believe someone really suggested that pay packages now include money to hire servants!!" writes one commenter. "In this type of economic climate, colleges should subsidize the cleaning lady? With positions being cut, budgets being slashed, endowments having lost can someone even discuss this with a straight face?" writes another.

I've interviewed some amazing women scientists and read interviews with and articles written by many more. I often see a similar answer from women who are asked how they are able to juggle family/home responsibilities with a successful scientific career: They have help. One more time: THEY HAVE HELP. For many partnered women, much of that help comes from a supportive partner, whether that support comes in the way of doing housework, taking care of children, or helping each other protect time for work and for family. And help may also be in the form of an au pair to take care of the children, someone to do some or all of the housework, or family that lives close by and chips in.

How a couple divides up its household chores is of course a personal matter, of course. But if a university or a company provides a laptop, Blackberry, company car, housing, or a tuition benefit as perks or to contribute to the employee's productivity, then why shouldn't they consider offering stipends for domestic help if it means freeing up several hours a week of a valued employee's time?

Let us know what you think.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published the story of how an undergraduate English teacher struck by a disability developed interactive ways to teach her students.

Elaine Smokewood, a 54-year-old English professor at Oklahoma City University in the United States, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease when she started losing her ability to speak and part of her mobility a couple of years ago. "Most professors believe they listen to their students, of course, and that they hold vibrant discussions in class," writes the aticle's author, Jeffrey R. Young. Smokewood was no exception, considering herself a "'highly interactive'" teacher, she told Young. "'But I still saw myself as the most important person in the room.'"

Disability forced Smokewood to give her classes from home, using a computer and a Web cam to display her image on a large monitor in the classroom, a videoconferencing system that shows her the students, and a speech synthesizer and typed text to talk to them.

The unusual setting made her a better teacher, Smokewood told Young. In particular, she became a better listener:

"I became a different kind of teacher than I had ever been--I became a teacher who actively listened," she wrote in a recent essay for the university's alumni newsletter. "I had in the past often confused listening with waiting for my students to stop talking so that I might resume the very important business of performing," she added. "I learned that if I listened carefully, thoughtfully, generously, and nonjudgmentally, my students would delight me with the complexity of their thinking, the depth of their insight, the delicious wickedness of their humor, and with their compassion, their wisdom, and their honesty."

Students are forced to participate much more in class: Smokewood makes them lead class discussions, quiz each others, and participate in an online forum discussion.

Her system may not work in all situations, Smokewood warns, especially for large or introductory classes. It seems to me it would also be difficult to implement in science classes, where traditionally there is less space for discussion and a greater need for equations, drawings, and demonstrations.

But listening more carefully to students and giving them a greater play in the classroom strikes me as a great way for teachers of all disciplines to better engage and prepare students.

Read the entire article here.


November 24, 2009

Beyond the Boys Club

A new book offers "strategies for achieving career success as a woman working in a male-dominated field," to quote the books subtitle.

Beyond the Boys Club (U.K.: Wit and Wisdom Press, 2009) is written by Suzanne Doyle-Morris, an "executive coach" who earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge with a dissertation focused on women in engineering.

I haven't yet seen the book so this is NOT a review. Yet, from what I've seen about it so far -- via this promotional YouTube video, this review in Nature (you'll need a subscription or a site license to read the whole thing), and this review in a blog -- it's likely to be useful for women working in science who, while technically competent, have not yet mastered the skills of raising their profile in their working communities. The book is available at and other retail outlets.

You might do just as well, however, by reading Stephanie Pfirman, et al.'s "Maximizing Productivity and Recognition" series on Science Careers, which focuses on science and hence, for academic scientists at least, more directly relevant. So far the series includes:

Part 1: Publication, Citation, and Impact
Part 2: Collaboration and Networking
Part 3: Developing a Research Plan

Part 4, which is about making sure you're regarded as a peer and not as a pet or mascot in your collaborations, and within your own department, will be published in January.

Best of all, the Science Careers articles are free and provide immediate gratification; no need to wait until a book is delivered.

November 19, 2009

Family Plans

Last month we ran Returning to Science by Sarah Webb, an article about women returning to science after extended family leaves. The same week we also published A Life Lived Backwards by Angela Saini, about Patricia Alireza, the University College-London physicist who didn't even start graduate school until her family was grown.

In connection with those articles we conducted an online poll to figure out how our readers -- overwhelmingly postdocs and graduate students -- are planning to balance family and career. Of those who took the survey, 49% were graduate students and 43% were postdocs. The remaining 8% were split evenly between "undergraduate student" and "other".

The result of the survey was, to me, both surprising and pleasing: The most popular approach, it seems, is not to wait. Nearly half of our readers "expect/plan to have children while still in training." More than a quarter of respondents already have children. About a quarter -- 24.5% -- plan to wait until after their careers are established before having children. 2% don't intend to have children at all.

All these choices are valid, but with the training phase getting longer and scientific independence happening later, it's good to see that among those who want children, nearly half feel they don't have to wait. The results follow in graphical form.

My thanks to Managing Editor Alan Kotok for designing and setting up the online poll.

Attaining a Ph.D. degree takes commitment and perseverance, as any Ph.D. candidate can attest. But the way Nicholas Kristoff tells it, in yesterday's New York Times Tererai Trent, a plant pathologist and Ph.D. candidate at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, demonstrated commitment and perseverance in the quest that few students at American universities are expected to endure.

Now 44, Trent came from a village in rural Zimbabwe, where, as tradition dictates, she was married off to a much older man at age 11. Most girls subjected to such conditions have ended up illiterate and poor, tending to small plots of land or herds of livestock. But 12 years after her marriage, Jo Luck, president of the rural aid organization Heifer International, visited Trent's village, and encouraged the village women to talk about their dreams and at least try to make them a reality.

Trent wrote down her dreams -- to go the United States and get an education -- on a scrap of paper, put the paper in a box, and buried it under a pile of rocks. Heifer International gave her a goat and she began to make extra money selling its milk. Later, she went to work for Heifer International and other aid groups as a community organizer in Zimbabwe. When she finished secondary school, the income saved up from her work at Heifer International helped her enroll at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, in 1998.

You're probably imaging smooth sailing for Trent the rest of the way. Think again. By the time she started school she had 5 children that she was not ready to abandon to their traditional and abusive father. Her husband agreed to let the children go with her to Oklahoma, but on one condition: that he could come along as well. The airfares soaked up much Trent's savings, Kristoff says, and she and her family lived in a ramshackle trailer with little income -- with nothing but beatings from a frustrated and abusive husband to welcome her home after class.

Financial and other help came, eventually, from a university colleague and the Stillwater community, and that help enabled her to complete her B.A. degree in agricultural education -- and to get her husband deported. When he would return later, frail and suffering from AIDS, Trent took him back in until he died of the disease. (Kristoff says Trent tested negative for the HIV virus.)

Trent continued at Oklahoma State, getting an M.S. degree in plant pathology, marrying her current husband, plant pathologist Mark Trent, and becoming Heifer International's Deputy Director for Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation. Her interest in assessing effectiveness led her to an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Western Michigan University, in evaluation. Her dissertation is called, "Toward an Integral Systematic Evaluation Approach in the Face of HIV/AIDS in Developing Countries."

She returned once to her village in Zimbabwe and found the pile of rocks under which she buried the box with her goals written down, Kristoff says, and she checks off her goals as they are achieved. Trent checked off the last item after defending her Ph.D. dissertation. The degree will be awarded in December.

Last month on this blog, we talked about more employers using reference checks as part of thorough investigations into applicants' pasts. Today's Wall Street Journal says that employers are taking that process further to include checks of arrests and convictions, which applicants must be prepared to explain or remove from their records.

You say you're not a criminal?  What about that campus demonstration and sit-in where the police arrested everyone blocking the entrance to a building on disorderly conduct charges? Or what about the traffic stop, where the officer found a joint in the back seat of the car you were driving? Perhaps you ended up paying a fine or even having the charges dropped; there are still traces of those arrests on official records that may come up when an employer starts looking into your past.

Arrests in the United States are hardly uncommon. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told the Journal that an estimated 60% of American men have been arrested, up from 50% in 1967, which he attributes to more arrests for minor drug and domestic violence cases. The Journal highlights Department of Justice figures showing that arrests for pot possession more than tripled, to 1.8 million, between 1980 and 2007.

Granted, arrests are different from convictions, and the Journal cites the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which says employers cannot make hiring decisions based on arrests that did not result in convictions. Still -- when a hiring manager is faced with a choice between two equally qualified candidates, only one of whom has an arrest record, who is more likely to get the nod?

In some states you can petition the authorities to clear past arrest records for minor crimes, which means having the official records of your arrest erased (expunged is the legal term) blocked, or sealed.  The processes and categories of offenses vary from state to state, but more often than not, you'll need to hire an attorney.  A Chicago attorney, Tamara Holder, specializes in such cases for Illinois residents, and advertises her record-clearing services on a Web site. The Journal says legal-aid organizations and public defenders offices can also be enlisted to help.

The process is neither quick nor fool-proof. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's pardons board handles record-clearing cases, and faces a 3-year backlog in requests. A new law in that state allows local courts to process the petitions, which could speed things up a bit. Even after the official record is expunged, sealed, or whatever, iit may take some time for commercial public records databases -- some with fees as low as $10 a search -- to catch up.

If you have an arrest record, even if it has been cleared, you may want to disclose the information before the employer finds it in a background check. "If someone has a criminal history, we can work with them," a Chicago-area executive told the Journal. "But if they have one and lie to us, that's pretty ominous."

I received a note this morning from Nell Brady, project manager at WAMC Northeast Public Radio in Albany, New York, alerting me to a new series of radio programs featuring women with disabilities in science. The series is being produced by the radio station as part of the NSF-funded Access to Advancement project.

Eventually there will be 10 segments, five focused on "tools, educational practices, and programs designed to broaden the participation of women with disabilities in science," Brady says, along with  "five profiles of women with disabilities who are successfully working or learning in science fields."

So far two "access" stories have been produced and posted to the station's Web site dedicated to women in science. The first features the "DO-IT" program at the University of Washington, which aims to increase the success of people with disabilities in college and careers.The second is a profile of computer scientist Patricia Walsh, who lost her sight at age 14 and now works for Microsoft. The other eight will follow next year.

Although Brady wrote to alert me to the "Access" series, when I visited the Web site I discovered a wealth of programming focused on women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (aka, STEM).

October 9, 2009

Ruth L. Kirschstein

The death of Ruth L. Kirschstein, MD, on October 6 has deprived young scientists of one of the best official friends they have ever had. In a trail-blazing half century at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Kirschstein served as acting and deputy director of NIH, an advisor to NIH directors, and the first female director of an institute. She used her knowledge and influence to advance the interests of young people aspiring to careers in science. She spoke out, organized meetings, and worked both in the foreground and behind the scenes to open opportunities for future generations of researchers.

Her work won her many honors. The two most relevant to young scientists came from the United States Congress, which in 2002 added her name to the title of the National Research Service Awards supporting biomedical students and postdocs, and the National Postdoctoral Association, which gave her its first Distinguished Service Award in 2004. Science Careers will offer its own appreciation of her life and work at a later date.

                                                                                     - Beryl Benderly
In January, we reported on Myron Rolle, a Florida State University football standout who turned down a sure-fire gig in the NFL for a Rhodes scholarship in medical anthropology. Yesterday, Rolle turned up at the Department of Interior in Washington, DC, where Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a new health and fitness program for American Indian schools, designed by Rolle.

Rolle's program, called Our Way to Health, provides fitness training, health education, and diabetes awareness, with the instructional material cast in the context of American Indian heritage and identity. He first designed the curriculum for fifth graders at a Seminole tribe charter school in Okeechobee, Florida. The Interior Department plans to expand that initial instance to five more schools in Arizona and New Mexico.

While Rolle's program is designed for children, he hopes it will "influence the adults in their lives to also begin adopting healthy life style changes," where obesity and diabetes are becoming more common in American Indian communities.

A new study of networking shows that white men get more job leads than women or Hispanics in their routine conversations. The study, authored by North Carolina State sociologist Steve McDonald and two colleagues, surveyed a national sample of 3,000 respondents to find out about the amount of job information people learn in their day-to-day conversations.

The advantages for white men are particularly pronounced for management jobs. White men, McDonald reported, receive more job leads in their routine conversations than white women or Hispanics of either gender, but about the same number of leads as African-American men and women. White males, however, receive more job leads when they are high-level supervisors, whereas African-Americans generally learn about new jobs while in non-managerial positions.

McDonald and his team found that some of these differences in job leads could be explained by differences in the extent of networking among white males compared with networking among women or minorities. The white males in the study tended to have more and better contacts in different fields of employment than Hispanics. However, white men and women had equal amounts and quality of networking, yet white males continued to get more job leads in their routine conversations. McDonald couldn't explain the greater number of leads for white men in management jobs.

The findings will be published later this month in the journal Social Problems.

July 30, 2009

RIP: A Quiet Hero

The New York Times reports the death of Gerald Gardner, a geophysicist who helped develop methods to locate oil using seismic vibrations. He died of leukemia at 83.

Gardner also developed the statistics used to support a landmark lawsuit against a Pittsburgh newspaper that led to a 1973 Supreme Court decision that rendered illegal the longstanding practice of posting separate ads for jobs intended for men and for women. The statistics showed that the practice led to disparities in pay, among other inequities.

Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric Corporation, caused a stir with a comment made in his keynote address at the Society for Human Resource Management conference on 28 June. "There's no such thing as work-life balance," said Welch, who added "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Welch, who has been married three times, elaborated, saying "We'd love to have more women moving up faster, But they've got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one." The Wall Street Journal's "Juggle" blog on balancing life and work said audience reactions, mainly human-resources managers and specialists, were mixed. "When people are not visible, it does hurt," said one attendee, referring to the out-of-sight/out-of-mind risks employees face when they leave the workplace for extended periods of time. Another audience member noted that many women have children after they join management ranks, which allows them to return to their careers already in progress.

Many bloggers reacted to Welch's comments as well. Conor Friedersdorf, guest blogging yesterday for Andrew Sullivan, had some of the more interesting comments. Friedersdorf says that if someone is penalized for temporarily stepping off the corporate ladder, the problem is with the ladder, not the employee, and that can eventually hurt the enterprise. "Doesn't Mr. Welch's approach artificially limit the number of qualified applicants considered for top jobs where the applicant pool is already smaller than optimal?" asks Friedsdorf.  "Doesn't it prevent some people with singular, extreme talent from ever being considered?" He adds that it's no coincidence that CEOs "lead miserable lives rife with lost friendships, dysfunctional relationships, divorces, alienated children, ludicrous attempts to use consumption as a stand in for actual happiness, etc."

This issue is particularly meaningful to scientists, who find themselves wanting to start families at the same time in their careers (graduate school, postdoc, or early academic or professional post) when they are expected to have high research output. Juggling these demands is a continuing interest on Science Careers. We most recently looked at how balancing career and family affects women physician-scientist trainees.
Women are at least as successful as men when they compete for tenured and tenure-track science faculty positions at academic research institutions and when they stand for tenure and promotion--and usually more successful.

Yet in almost every scientific field, women consistently applied for academic jobs, and stood for tenure, less often than men. As a result, they continue to be hired and promoted less often than their male colleagues.

That's the conclusion of Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, the latest report from the U.S. National Research Council's Committee on Gender Differences in Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, which was released moments ago.

The new report is strikingly different in its approach and conclusions from the previous National Academies report on gender disparities in the sciences, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, which was released in 2006 by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP).

According to the new, data-driven report, academic institutions have done very well in hiring and tenuring the women who apply. For example, in biology, 26% of applicants to tenure-track faculty positions at R1 universities were women, but a larger percentage--28%--of interviews went to women, and 34% of offers went to women. In electrical engineering, 11% of applicants were women, whereas 19% of interviewees were women, and 32% of job offers went to women. This trend--towards better-than-average success by women--holds across all six disciplines studied.

Unfortunately, another trend was just as consistent: the percentage of women who applied for tenure track jobs was consistently well below women's representation in the Ph.D. pool. For example, while 45% of recent (1999-2003) Ph.D. graduates in biology were women, just 26% of R1 job applicants in biology were women. The descrepency is smallest in fields where women are the least well represented; in physics, women are 14% of the doctoral pool and 12% of the applicant pool; in electrical engineering, 12% of the Ph.D. pool were women, while 11% of the applicant pool were women.  Yet the general trend of under-representation in the applicant pool persists across all six of the disciplines studied.

At the tenure decision the pattern was repeated. Again, women were consistently more successful than their male colleagues. But the percentage of women going up for tenure was smaller than women's representation on the R1 tenure track. And again, this under-representation was most dramatic in the fields--biology and chemistry--where women are best represented. In biology, 36% of R1 assistant professors are women, but only 27% stood for tenure. In chemistry, the numbers were 22% and 15%, respectively.

Other interesting findings:

* Strategies intended to increase the number of women applying for jobs were generally unsuccessful. Yet, representation of women on the hiring committee--and having a woman at the head of the committee--was correlated with greater representation of women in the applicant pool. 

* Both men and women took advantage of "clock-stopping" policies at their universities, extending the amount of time before the tenure review, but women took advantage more than men. 19.7% of women stopped the clock, while 7.4% of men did. Stopping the clock did not seem to affect the probability of eventual promotion and tenure.

The study points out the need for a "deeper understanding" of career paths in the sciences. Specifically, the authors argue for more and better longitudinal data (their study is a "snapshot"), and more attention to the question of why women apply less often than men.

In Miami, aspiring CSI technicians can now get bachelors degrees at Miami-Dade College, one of 10 formerly 2-year institutions in Florida that now offer 4-year degrees. The New York Times on Saturday described how a handful of schools like Miami-Dade College (which used to be called Miami-Dade Community College) are challenging the traditional 4-year colleges,  many offering science- and technology-based curricula leading to bachelor's degrees.

According to an online index provided by the Community College Baccalaureate Association, 34 community colleges in the United States and 23 community colleges in Canada are now offering 4-year degrees. The Times article says that these community colleges are training candidates for high-skilled positions, including positions in science and technology, that the traditional 4-year colleges don't fill, or at least not quickly.

For example, in Florida, all 10 community colleges offering bachelors degrees have programs to train math and science teachers for middle schools or secondary schools. Six of the 10 also offer degrees in health-related fields such as nursing and veterinary technologies.  Forensics courses are offered by four Florida schools with degrees in public-safety or fire-science management.

Other examples: Great Basin College in Nevada offers bachelors degrees in digital information technology, instrumentation, land surveying/geomatics, and management in technology. Bellevue Community College in Washington State has bachelors degrees in radiologic and imaging sciences.   

According to the Times, some 4-year colleges aren't happy. Lobbying by the four-year colleges has stalled legislation in Michigan, for example.  The Times quotes Mike Boulus, an executive of the State Universities of Michigan organization, who called these degrees "a solution in search of a problem." Boulus adds, "Community colleges should stick with the important work they do extremely well, offering 2-year degrees and preparing students for transfer to 4-year schools."

But community college officials say they're helping to fill gaps in needed skills, and offering access to college to students seeking a more vocational approach, or who can't afford to attend traditional, 4-year institutions, which are typically more expensive. Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami-Dade, tells the Times that community colleges are complementing, not competing with, 4-year colleges. "You won't see us starting a B.A. in sociology," says Padrón. "We're offering degrees in things the universities don't want to do."

Besides, Padrón says, Miami-Dade serves a population that the 4-year schools ignore. He notes that 80% of its students work, and that 58% come from low-income households. "The universities that handpick their students based on SATs and grades get three times the funding we do," says  Padrón. "We are the underfunded overachiever."

Ric Weibl, director of the Center for Careers in Science and Technology in AAAS (publisher of Science Careers), tells us of SACNAS's Summer Leadership Institute, which will be held 28 July - 1 August at AAAS's offices in Washington DC.

SACNAS, an organization devoted to advancing opportunities for Hispanic and Native American scientsts, offers this training to underrepresented minority scientists interested in building their leadership skills. The institute also intends to establish and support a network of leadership-minded scientists and provide participants with take-away tools and individual planning to put their skills into practice at their home institutions. SACNAS designed this intensive 5-day course together with AAAS and includes topics such as team building, decision-making, delegation, conflict management and resolution, and building a personal leadership-development plan.   
SACNAS has funding to support registration, travel, lodging, and meals for some participants. Postdocs and professionals are encouraged to apply by the 15 May deadline. Additional information and application materials are available on the SACNAS Web site.
A new report this week from the Computing Research Association (CRA)  shows enrollments and degrees rising among bachelor's degree and Ph.D. students in the U.S. and Canada. For undergraduates at least, this marks a reversal of a trend going back to 2002. The report, which describes changes between the 2007-2008 and 2006-2007 academic years, includes data from 192 of the 264 members of CRA, consisting of computer science, computer engineering, and information science departments in North America.

For undergraduate students, the 6.2% increase in course enrollment and 8.1% increase in declared majors were the first recorded in 6 years. At the other end of the undergraduate spectrum, the news wasn't as good: The number of bachelors degrees awarded in these disciplines decreased 10% to about 12,800. Nonetheless, this rate represented an improvement over the extraordinary declines documented by the previous year's survey; that survey showed a 20% decline in bachelor's degrees from the year before.

The number of Ph.D. degrees awarded by these departments grew 5.7% over the previous year, to 1,877. The number of Ph.D. students passing their thesis candidacy exams--a common feature in computer science departments--increased by about 7%. The number of master's degrees awarded remained about the same as in the 2006-2007 academic year, about 10,000.

While students from overseas make up a large proportion of the graduate degrees in computing disciplines, they are less common among undergraduates. About half (49.5%) of the masters recipients and a majority (56.5%) of the Ph.D. degrees were non-resident aliens. But only 6.2% of bachelors degrees awarded in 2007-2008--about 1 in 16--went to non-resident aliens.

Women are a distinct minority in computer departments. Only 1 in 8 bachelors degrees (12%), 1 in 4 masters degrees (26%), and 1 in 5 Ph.D.s (21%) went to women. Whatever their gender, a majority (56.6%) of new Ph.D. recipients were hired by industry, up from 52% in the previous year. Some 3 in 10 (29.4%) took academic positions, while another 3% went to work in government. Less than 1% reported being unemployed.

The 3 in 10 new Ph.D.s taking academic positions in 2007-2008 represents a sharp decline from the 6 in 10 recorded in the 2004-2005 survey. Of the new academic hires about one-third  (9.4%) received tenure-track positions, about the same number (10%) became postdocs, and the remainder became researchers, non-tenure track faculty, or took other academic jobs.

The authors of the report caution that these data were accumulated mostly before the economy deteriorated drastically (most of the last data were gathered in the fall of 2008).

In connection with "Career Boosters for Women and Minority Scientists," a career workshop presented by Science Careers at the AAAS Annual Meeting, we present the following list of international resources for women and minority scientists. If you encounter this list in print form, you can find an online version (with embedded links) at

These resources are examples of what's available, not an exhaustive list of opportunities. Check out what other programs your college or university, funding body, learned society, professional body, and support association may have to support you.

Training and Mentoring

- Coming Soon! MySciNet, an inclusive community of scientists, from Science Careers

-    Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) at Boston University in Massachusetts

-    Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowships (MURF) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

-    the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Summer Research Program in the Biological Sciences and Related Fields

-    The Ecological Society of America (EAS)'s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS) offers minority undergrads the opportunity to gain lab research experience, go on field trips, network, and attend conferences

-    MentorNet, the E-Mentoring Network for Diversity in Engineering and Science

- The Empowering Leadership: Computing Scholars of Tomorrow Alliance offers mentoring to minority undergraduate and graduate students in the computer sciences in the United States

-    The American Heart Association (AHA) Minority Mentoring Program for early-career scientists and clinicians

-    The Mentoring Program of the Max Planck Society for Promoting Female Junior Researchers in Germany

Grants, Scholarships, and Awards

-    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program (UGSP) offers undergrads from disadvantaged backgrounds a scholarship towards their educational and living expenses, a paid summer internship within an NIH lab, and employment at the NIH after graduation.

-    The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Robert D. Watkins Graduate Research Fellowships for doctoral research

-    The L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program offers International Fellowships for doctoral and postdoctoral women in the life sciences to carry out a research project outside their home country as well as national fellowships and mentoring opportunities in 35 different countries.

-    The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellowships and Supporting Activities in biology and social, behavioral, and economic sciences

-    The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)'s Diversity Program in Neuroscience Postdoctoral Fellowships offers funding and additional training opportunities

-    The Royal Society's Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships cover salary and research expenses for European Union doctorate-holders in all fields of science to work in a U.K. institution.

-    The Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) offers travel rewards to underrepresented minority senior postdocs and faculty members to attend the FASEB Summer Research Conferences

-    The Daphne Jackson Fellowships aim to help scientists in the United Kingdom return to the workplace after a career break

-    Find more opportunities on GrantsNet

More Resources

-    The International Federation of University Women (IFUW)

-    Women in Technology International (WITI)

-    The Association for Women in Science (AWIS), U.S.A

- The European Association for Women in Science Engineering & Technology (WiTEC)

-    The European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS)

- European Women in Mathematics (EWM)

- The U.K. Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology

- The Centre of Excellence, Women and Science (CEWS) in Germany

-    The Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS),

-    The Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education (CAHSEE), U.S.A.

- The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)

-    The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) in the U.S.A.

- Minority Scientists Network (MySciNet), Science Careers Diversity Issues

-    JustGarciaHill, a virtual community for minorities in science

-    The American Psychological Associations (APA)'s Survival Guide for Ethnic Minority Graduate Students 

-    Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)'s Entering Mentoring, written by Jo Handelsman and colleagues