PhD parents: first to leave the pipeline?

A New York Times article posted yesterday presents a pretty convincing case for the financial reasons (and some other weighty reasons) not to have children. I learned about this article from the reaction posts by  and rxnm, which are also worth checking out. I had a pretty strong visceral reaction to these posts–probably because I’ve already been thinking about these issues a lot lately, especially about how parenting and biomedical academic science seem to mix like oil and water.

Few of my friends from high school, college, and graduate school have children, and few have described a desire to have them. Most of these people have advanced degrees (I really, really live in a bubble). When my husband and I decided to have a child, I began to feel like a teenage mother in my cohort. Even though we had many rational reasons for this decision, I still think it may be the craziest thing we’ve ever done. So I completely understand why many of my friends are forgoing the parenting adventure for other adventures (filled with less spit up and fewer toddler tantrums).

But what makes me sad is the feeling that I get that academic science is becoming less and less friendly to those of us who decide to become parents (especially without a stay-at-home parent in the mix). The group of biomedical PhDs that I know who have decided early on that a research career isn’t for them is largely made up of parents or people planning to become parents soon. And my anecdotal observations are supported by statistics–at least for women. According to the National Postdoctoral Association:

“Postdoc women who have had children since becoming postdocs are twice as likely as men who also have had children to change their career goal away from professor with a research emphasis. These women are also twice as likely to change their career goal from the professoriate as women who have not had children and have no future plans to have children (Goulden et al. 2009)”

I think this is because these mothers feel like they cannot compete. Dads with working spouses also feel the pressure. And realistically, when there is a glut of PhDs, the ones who can spend more time in lab are probably going to get more publications and have a higher chance of making it to the tenure track (TT) stage.  “Work harder, not smarter” can only take you so far.

This is not to say that children and academic science are incompatible. Many of the faculty in my department have kids and seem to balance things pretty well. But I think timing is important. My guess is that scientists who have their first child in graduate school or early in the postdoc stage are most at risk of leaking out of the pipeline early on. Here are some reasons why:

1) Academic nomads are often separated from extended families who could make childrearing less difficult and time consuming by helping with childcare.

2) Postdoctoral salaries often aren’t adjusted for cost of living. I know a postdoc in the Boston area who paid $1500/a month for three days of childcare a week. A divorced PhD dad with two kids told me he really wanted to do a postdoc after defending his PhD but just didn’t think he could support his kids on that pay. Perhaps this is one reason why many scientists want more children than they have.

3) PhD parents don’t think they have a shot at the golden (tenure track job) ticket. It’s publish or perish, baby. When you have 600 neuroscience PhDs competing for one TT spot, the odds are against those who can’t (or won’t) spend weekends in lab. As Eve Marder describes in this article, with longer and longer training periods looming ahead of them, many PhDs choose other paths. 

No one is forcing these people to have kids, and the choice to become a parent, like any choice, comes with consequences (consequences the New York Times article I mentioned at the beginning clearly point out). But I think it is sad that there are so many PhD parents who would be excellent professors and scientists who are leaving the pipeline early because they just don’t think they can cut it.

And simply due to the very biology that we all so love, women are more likely than men to be affected by this as they have a more limited fertility window. Indeed, the recent article “Top Recommendations from Top Women in Science” about policy changes to keep women in the pipeline does include many parent-friendly policies (although we now know we need to add addressing gender bias to that list). But I think the real answer comes in dealing with the jobs issue.

Perhaps it’s time to tighten the pipeline to begin with. Part-time postdoc positions won’t help women if these positions make them even less competitive for the few jobs that are out there. This is something no one (the NIH, graduate programs, PhD advisors, even students) seems to want to address. The other option is to create more staff scientist positions or to make more concrete training programs for hybrid or non-academic careers. If we want a happy, sustainable, gender-balanced workforce in the biomedical sciences there simply have to be jobs at the end for trainees (parents or not). So, in my mind, the answer is either fewer people in or more jobs out.


It’s time to get real about non-academic job training for biomedical PhDs and postdocs

Last week, Dr. Sally Rockey put up a post on the NIH’s Rock Talk blog clarifying allowable training activities for the different types of NIH postdocs.

Two things stood out to me about this post:

1. It appears that teaching is a supported training exercise for postdocs on NIH fellowships but not for those supported off of research grants.

Someone else in the comment section was surprised by this too so maybe Rockey will clarify this distinction in a later post. Personally, I think teaching should be an NIH-sanctioned activity for all postdocs. A few years ago I went to a career seminar by a new prof at an elite liberal arts college. He said that he thinks he had an advantage in the job search because he had taught a course at a nearby university, but he did this by moonlighting (teaching at night). For postdocs already working long hours on evenings and weekends, or those with families, this kind of moonlighting might be unrealistic. I’d also hazard to say that many grad student and postdoc advisors are already against having their trainees spend signification time on teaching (a job they will eventually do if they become professors of any sort) since it takes time away from research. If the NIH says that significant teaching is not sanctioned for postdocs on research grants (as most postdocs are), this adds credence to those advisors’ views.

2. There is absolutely no mention of career development for non-academic positions.

Can we get real for a minute? We know that we’re training way too many PhDs for them all to be eventually employed as professors (see the NIH’s own report).  What does that mean? It means that a significant number of PhDs and postdocs are going to have to find non-academic jobs. And what does getting a non-academic job require? Time and skills.

The working group report recommends that the NIH create grants for “training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options,” but as far as I know those are just pipe dreams at this point (these recommendations were also made in 1998). What about current grad students and postdocs? What do they do when they decide academia isn’t for them, or that they’re not competitive, or that they just can’t land a TT job after three cycles? They. Need. To. Find. Jobs.

Non-academic jobs (just like academic jobs), do not simply fall from the sky. They require skill building, networking, informational interviews, resume writing and rewriting, job applications, and actual experience (sometimes in the form of an internship). Inherently, all of these things take time away from the research enterprise, but they are necessary. Really. You could argue that grad students and postdocs should be doing these things on their own time, but graduate and postdoctoral training is called TRAINING for a reason. Postdocs are by definition temporary jobs, so career development (not just for academic jobs) should be part of the training. It would be great if the NIH realized this–unless this “alternative career” language they used in the recent report is just a scam.

Is the solution a culture shift?

I think there’s a larger cultural problem with the idea of non-academic careers. Throughout grad school, we’re officially or unofficially trained to become singularly focused on our research. Unfortunately, that means we lose out on the ability to diversify our skills or network with people outside our immediate fields. This is an enormous opportunity cost that really makes it a struggle to find a job once the PhD is in hand. I’ve seen several colleagues struggle with the leap to a non-academic career (as have I).

Yes, grad students and postdocs are wholly responsible for navigating our own careers. We need to be the ones finding opportunities to expand our skill sets and to make connections with people outside academia. But grad program directors and grad student/postdoc advisors can help make their trainees more competitive by encouraging them (many of whom are introverts) to do these things or at the very least not discouraging them when they want to teach a class, participate in outreach activities, or start an internship. I understand there is an inherent conflict of interest here–research papers are the currency of academic science and research output is what creates this currency. But trainees are people–not data-producing robots. They have bills to pay and hopefully futures to plan for.

What can trainees in the pipeline do now? Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule

If you are a grad student or postdoc, the time to start thinking about your future is now. And if you’re in the biomedical sciences, it’s probably prudent to prepare plans A, B, and C given the numbers and the state of the economy. It’s hard to pull yourself away from the bench when you think you need a glamour journal publication to even have a shot at an academic career, but it’s also important. I highly recommend Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule. You spend 80% of your work week working your ass off on your research. 10% goes to personal development and 10% goes to bragging about yourself/networking.  Seriously, read his advice here.

I wish I had put more effort into planning my career as a graduate student. I went to just about every seminar offered by our career center. I participated in three teaching seminar programs. But I didn’t spend nearly enough time doing active career development–like talking to people outside the university, writing articles, or doing an internship. Part of this was out of guilt and the feeling that I should only be focusing on my research. Part of it was fear. And part of it was time simply slipping out of my hands.

I’m making up for lost time now by doing an internship and trying to network on top of a full-time postdoc. But, honestly, this is difficult and exhausting (way more so than writing and defending my dissertation with a 6 month old). I’m thankful to have an incredibly, incredibly understanding and supportive advisor and a husband that picks up my slack with childcare and chores. I know others aren’t so lucky and some are struggling to do these things while unemployed, which is even more difficult in some ways.

My hopes are that people at the NIH, graduate program directors, and grad student/postdoc trainers start to realize the precarious position many biomedical PhDs are in right now. Let’s start encouraging grad students and postdocs to pull their heads out of the sand and to stick them outside the windows of the ivory tower.

Retractions, Exploring the Zooniverse, Spiders in Guam, and Crowdfunding

I have four recent posts up at the AAAS MemberCentral website:

Should a scientific journal article be retracted if its conclusions are wrong? 
When should a paper be retracted? Certainly if the results were fabricated but what if the results are wrong for other reasons? And what if the results are right but the conclusions are wrong?

Identify new galaxies, explore the deep oceans, and categorize bat calls with Zooniverse: Zooniverse lets citizen scientists analyze large datasets 
These projects are so awesome that sometimes I wish I were retired so I could be a citizen scientist (instead of a real one). In the time since I wrote this post, four new suns were discovered by ‘armchair astronomers’ working on one of the Zooniverse projects and Zooniverse launched a new project where people can classify cancer cells. You don’t need any scientific background to work on these projects, and you might discover something new and really fascinating.  Hat tip to Kyle Willett, a college friend of mine who is a postdoc working on the GalaxyZoo project, for introducing me to Zooniverse at his wedding.

In Guam, more snakes means fewer birds — and many spiders
This post looks at how an invasive species created a “natural experiment” for ecologists studying ecosystems in Guam.

Scientists experiment with a new way to fund their research
Ethan Perlstein really, really, really  wants you to help fund his meth lab.

Does gender bias play a role in the leaky pipeline after all?

Photo: Amanda Mills (CDC)

A new post of mine was recently published on the AAAS MemberCentral Driving Force blog (may be behind paywall for now): Does gender bias play a role in the leaky pipeline after all? This post delves into the findings of a recent PNAS study that, unfortunately, shows scientists are not immune to gender discrimination. I wrote my post a while ago, but since then the PNAS study has gotten lots of press–including from large media outlets. This is great because, as the study points out, the best way to counteract such biases is for more people to be aware that they exist. Unfortunately, I know from scenarios that my female colleagues have faced that discrimination is alive and well (but often subtle) in science.

Some additional recommended reading on the topic:

CNN (Meg Urry): Why bias holds women back 

Scientific American Doing Good Science Blog (Janet D. Stemwedel): Gender bias: ethical implications of an empirical finding

The New York Times (Kenneth Chang): Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds

The Wall Street Journal: He, Once a She, Offers Own View on Science Spat (an oldie, but really worth the read because Barres has an important and unique perspective)

Scientific American Unofficial Prognosis blog (Ilana Yurkiewicz): Study shows gender bias in science is real. Here’s why it matters.

Confused at a Higher Level blog (Melissa Eblen-Zayas, Carleton College physics professor)Readings for undergraduate women in STEM?

How do male scientists balance lab life with home life? – AAAS MemberCentral post


Photo credits: CDC (Amanda Mills)

By interviewing male biologists and physicists from different career stages, Elaine Howard Ecklund and colleagues examined how these scientists balance time spent in the lab versus time spent on household and child-rearing tasks. The original study isn’t available yet, but Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed recounts some interesting tidbits from what was presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting.

Continue reading this (member exclusive) post at AAAS MemberCentral.