A little bit bitch and a little bit buddhist always at the intersection of biology, gender, race, and culture. This blog documents my experience as a Canadian postdoc living and working in the United States. I can't promise to be PG13. In fact I promise not to be PG13.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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While I'm traveling I've decided to repost a series of old blogposts on the academic trajectory. In part because I'm lazy (give me a break traveling is tiring) but also because lately my career choices have been on my mind.
I've had some interesting conversations with some sr faculty, which when things settle down I will write about. So for now, peeps, you will have to be content with some oldies but goodies. This first one is from April 2010.
When I started my life as a graduate student in the biological sciences, I was met by opposition from both sides of the family, but for very different reasons. My mom's side of the family lives with a very strong religious belief. What is important is strengthening and developing your religious practice and being a good Muslim woman. This meant believing in a God and marrying well - a good Muslim boy. I had three choices of a career: medical doctor, medical doctor, or medical doctor. Going to graduate school and studying evolution was an affront to their belief system.
On my dad's side, money is a very powerful and motivating force. His belief (echoed by his siblings) is that stuff will liberate you. This meant having a big home, expensive cars, expensive adult toys, and lots of expensive clothes. Stuff. Stuff will buffer you from the harsh realities of the world (here they meant racism). Or at least you can buy your way out of the discomforts of the real world. According to my parents' wisdom, I had three choices for a career: medical doctor, lawyer (how they would laugh if they knew how stupid a choice this was now), or get an MBA and go into business. Going to graduate school was a waste of time not to mention condemned you to a life of poverty (if only they could read this blog, how they would laugh and say I told you so).
Needless to say, my life to date has essentially been a big "fuck you" sign to both sides of the family. Both on the personal side of things and in my career choices.
Given the pressure I felt to become a medical doctor, it didn't seem surprising to me that I was one of the few minority biology graduate students in the biological sciences. I had thought that most children of immigrant families tend to become doctors, lawyers, engineers etc. And really, I suspect that this is only true of ecology and evolution. The face of the biomedical sciences is likely much more diverse. But I really have no stats to back up that statement. Just a gut feeling.
I was quite interested then in the NSF data that documents the participation of Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. I have summarized the report in a series of graphs because some interesting facts emerge.
When we look at the proportion of graduate students in the biological sciences we still see that minorities make up less than 10% of student population. Asian Americans make up the largest percentage of the minority graduate student population at approximately 8%, followed by African and Hispanic Americans at 5%. A second noticeable trend in Figure 1 is that over the last 7 years these numbers have not really changed. What do these statistics mean? Well, let's explore this.
In 2000 and 2007, demographic data showed that 12% of Americans were Black or African American, 15% were Hispanic or Latino, <1% were Native American, and only 4% were of Asian origin. This means that the per capita representation of Asians is actually double what you would expect given their representation in the population base. The issue of under representation of minorities in STEM lies specifically with African and Hispanic graduate students. If there was equal opportunity available to all, we would expect that African and Hispanic Americans should, at the very least, make up 12% and 15% of graduate students in biology. But they don't. Is this due to opportunity or interest?
And yet it seems like when minorities do get through graduate school they do quite well. In 2006, 15% of all science and engineering faculty were Asian, 4% were African American, 4% were Hispanic and 1% are Native American.
(I didn't have numbers specific to biological sciences faculty.)
The picture looks even better in non-academic settings. In 2006, 23% of those employed as life scientists with doctorates were Asian, 3% were Black or African American, and 3% were Hispanic. Of the 2000 forestry and conservation scientists in the year 2006, none were Asian, Black, Hispanic or Native American.
Although minority representation is still something to be concerned about, there doesn't seem to be the attrition levels that are associated with women.
Under the same per capita logic, in the year 2000 and 2007, women made up 51% of the American population. The number of women that graduated with doctorates in that same year was 43%, by 2006, this number increased to 47%.
In that same year, 2000, women made up 38% of the postdocs in the biological sciences and by 2006, were at 41%. And if you look at these numbers by discipline within the biological sciences, other than biometry and epidemiology, women are generally hanging tight at ~40% across the six year dataset.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, the report by the AAUW, "Why So Few" is still important because there are areas where women graduate students are few and far between, like computer sciences, oddly. But focusing solely on the early stages simply sets us up for continued failure and disappointment.
We really need to explore why there is such an attrition rate in women at the postdoctoral level. What good is it if we can achieve 50% representation at the doctorate level in all STEM sciences, if women never end up in tenured or tenure-track jobs?
We have an opportunity right now because women in the biological sciences are almost representative of their population base at the doctoral and postdoctoral level. It is that crucial transition from postdoctoral scientist to faculty where things fall off a scientific precipice.
I have many friends who consider themselves progressive - we sit around and talk about the presence of an old boy's network. We talk about how academics can still have a family and work-life balance. But frankly, I don't see it. I can name several successful young male academics whose wives have given up their careers to raise the kids. They are successful because of the choices these women have made. I can't really name anymore than 1 successful female academic whose husband, also in science, has sacrificed his career for hers. It's not really the OldBoysver1.1 that we should be concerned with, it's the OldBoysver2.2 that is young thirty-something male academics who are simply replacing the old. And you know what, women are still the rare alleles.
A study that examines the employment routes of women with doctorates would be incredibly useful. Do they go into industry, publishing, consulting, etc? What proportion are women in these different scientific workplaces? Is it because they have actively chosen to pursue other routes or that they have tried, but unsuccessfully to obtain a tenure-track job? And if they actively made a decision to pursue another career route, what factors played into their decision?
All things being equal, my chance of getting a tenure track job is the pr(t-t job as a woman)x pr(tt as a minority)= 0.22x0.15=3%.
Looking back, I should have at least listened to parents' underlying concerns. Instead I was idealistic, young and stupid. It would be nice if my parents weren't right about my future.
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I don't think your parents have to be right about your future. It's hard to know what those numbers really mean, because like you said, we don't know what happens to the majority of PhDs once they leave academia. I heard a stat on NPR a while back that said unemployment for persons with a PhD is something like 1%, so people are definitely finding jobs in places other than academia. They failed to mention what those people were getting paid though. Maybe I'm just overly optimistic about our future.
One thing to keep in mind though is that with a PhD, you can quickly jump into a one year MBA program or a one to two year patent law program and become a biotech business person or a patent attorney. I have two friends who went this route and are doing very well for them selves. They're both making six figures and couldn't be happier.
I don't actually think a PhD is a bad economic or intellectual decision. I do, however, believe that I could have streamlined the process. In other words had I gone in with my eyes wide open, I wouldn't necessarily be in a postdoc today. Also I might have considered the life history consequences.
The woman thing struck home I was just telling someone that. My male counterparts have someone at home taking care of their life whhile they dedicate all their time to the lab. I can't spend all that time they do because of ittle thing slike grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking.. don't even get me started on kids. Can't have one b/c how? Thanks for posting!
@Alchemystress A female postdoc friend of mine was advised by a female ass't prof to get a housekeeper even though she was single. Simply because that time could be used for science.
wow... can't say i don't think about that.. but does it really need to come to that? I did have a boss tell me once that i am wasting time b/c if i have time for exercise make up and dressing well then i am taking time away from my work.... yeah