March 3, 2006

"Why does anyone think science is a good job?"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at March 3, 2006 11:31 AM

Uncertain Principles links to an essay proposing a novel explanation for why there are so few women in science: jobs in science are terrible in terms of pay, working conditions, and job security, and women are put off by this.

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.
I don't buy it as an explanation for the gender gap: it doesn't explain the vast gender disparities between different fields within science. Women are being deterred from working in physics but not biology, and as far as I can tell everything that is said in this essay about science in general applies to both fields. On the other hand, it's good commentary on the serious downsides of pursuing a career as an academic scientist. Tags: Academia, Science

At dinner-with-the-job-candidate last night, one of the senior astronomy faculty was saying that one of the reason there are so few women hired in the eps/astro field is that it's still dominated by word-of-mouth--so when they have a pile of applicants, they'll ask around for which ones to especially consider--and that both men and women, when asked for "who's the hot shit right now?" will not mention women unless pressed very hard. Not very encouraging.

Which doesn't explain why so many women just leave after their PhDs--that's a different question.

Posted by: Wren | March 3, 2006 11:42 AM

As an interesting contrast to Wren's comment, I'll point out that there's a large gender disparity between physics and astronomy (not as extreme as either to biology, but at least the fields are much more comparable in terms of subject matter). Heck, the last faculty hire at Lick was female; she was clearly a good choice though for tactical reasons I'd have preferred either of two male competitors.

And it's not just women who are put off by long, poorly paid schooling followed by average salaries and zero job security... Hmm, the article has slightly wrong numbers - grad students aren't paid quite that much, postdocs are paid quite a lot more than that.

Posted by: Justin | March 3, 2006 1:07 PM

The cited grad student stipend is slightly less than what we get at UCB Physics (before taxes). The postdoc numbers are definitely lower than what our department pays by at least 25%, although I don't know the precise postdoc salary here.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | March 3, 2006 3:45 PM

The essay makes some good points--and it definitely makes points that I've talked about with friends and co-workers here.

With chemistry, the job market really depends on what sub-field a researcher is in. If a good chemist with a strong background in, for instance, medicinal chemistry looks for a job at the age of 30 during a postdoc, he or she has a decently good chance of scoring a pharma job with good salary and good benefits. On the other hand, a chemist with a strong background in a less hot, more theoretical branch of chemistry can only really find a job in academia.

Gazebo: You mention that women are being deterred from working in physics but not from working in biology. I would say that the average TSRI biologist spends less time at work than the average TSRI chemist (and most of TSRI is biology--probably 85%). There are only three labs in my building that do chemistry, and after 6pm or on weekends, most of the cars in the parking lot belong to people in these three labs. The situation at the main TSRI campus is pretty similar. I don't know how representative this is of the fields in general, but there's one difference to look at: are more women biology professors partly because they're able to find positions in which they can have less stressful lifestyles?

Sort of along the lines of what Wren was saying, there's also an "old boys' club" in a lot of fields. Synthetic chemistry and polymer chemistry are notorious for having a macho, misogynistic feel to them; senior faculty who have that mindset are more likely to recommend or remember applicants who're similar.

A female postdoc in my lab went to an interview for a chemistry faculty position. She's 30 and engaged to be married. The interviewer said at one point, "I'm not legally allowed to ask this, but are you going to get married soon? Is your fiance going to need a job?" and so on. All right, he's not legally allowed to ask her straight out, "Are you going to have kids, an act that will take time away from your career," but he wants to weasel the answer out of her? I'm positive that at least some faculty search committees will reject female applicants because they're afraid that a female professor will have kids and have less time for research, whether or not this is true.

And as a note: we have about 20 professors on the chemistry faculty here. Exactly 0 of them are women.

Posted by: Jolene | March 3, 2006 3:51 PM

Justin told me earlier at the CPA social hour about this new entry. (I had a busy day and didn't goof off as much during it as a result. Hell, I plan to write a progress report tonight.)

Jolene wrote: "With chemistry, the job market really depends on what sub-field a researcher is in."

This is true far more universally than that. In fact, I think (based on observations; I don't have stats, so please correct me if you know otherwise) this may be more pronounced in physics than in most other subjects. Also, for those of us whose training doesn't correspond at all to traditional boundaries (me, for instance), there is also a big issue of being stuck between departments. (I have had tenure-track interviews in math, applied math, physics, and MechE departments and the only group that really claims me as one of their own is the applied mathematicians. And there are very few applied math departments in this country.) I have repeatedly had mathematicians tell me I'm a physicist (with the implication that I'm not really one of them) and vice versa, and the quest for a tenure-track job is when this aspect of things rears its ugly head even more prominently than usual.

In terms of the larger issue that Gazebo brought up, there are also propagation conditions in addition to the possible initial conditions mentioned above. At some level, the number of female scientists in many fields is small because the number is small (hence, a potentially much smaller comfort level, for example). Some departments have (by accident, in many cases; by design, in others) ratios that are roughly 1:1 among their grad students, and such ratios tend to propagate within that department because prospective females notice the ratio and many of them will be more likely to want to go there than where the department is, say, 10:1 or worse.

One program (not technically a department) that particularly comes to mind is the applied math program at Cornell, where we have a 1:1 ratio that has persisted for many years. (I believe this is one of the 'by accident' examples.) Mathematics is another field where women are sparse, but one can still find this and similar small islands. Anyway, we seem to have a bistable system here. There is the equilibrium with a reasonable ratio and the equilibrium with a screwed-up one (and the latter perhaps has a larger basin of attraction, which is where some of the initial condition discussions become more deeply involved). Damn symmetry-breaking! It fucks you every time.

From my own end, the little that I have done is try to help my female advisees through some of these issues. (The fact that I'm even aware of them sadly puts me far ahead of most of my colleagues.) In one case, for example, I arranged the student to have lunch with a female colleague (who I knew but the student didn't) to discuss matters---my idea here is that while I am aware of the issues, I can't possibly understand them in the same way, and arranging such meetings (which an undergrad is unlikely to initiate) is at least one thing I can do. This student isn't entering a Ph.D. program yet (though she has the ability to), but she is working in a good job and will be getting a Masters in statistics at their behest. (I'd rather her get a Ph.D., and she does claim to want to enter such a program eventually.) Of course, I took her to a conference once, and a creepy German postdoc followed her around during it. (My understanding is that young females who go to math and physics conferences often end up getting glommed. I'm sure this does wonders for their staying in the field.)

Posted by: Mason | March 3, 2006 9:31 PM

I was shocked and horrified when a NASA postdoc application asked for my marital status. Come to think of it, I'm still shocked and horrified; I'm hoping (despite a shocking lack of documentation) that it's for statistics and not going to be considered as part of the application. (A fair interpretation, since it's in a section labelled "Demographics" which also includes questions about sex and race and disabilities.)

Mason--I chose not to go to grad school in physics, despite an undergrad degree in it, in part because of statements like "Women can't do real physics," from my peers. (In addition to the faintly misogynistic attitudes of some faculty members.)

Posted by: Wren | March 3, 2006 10:32 PM

Wren, any of our peers who make comments like that should be shot and maimed (not necessarily in that order).

Posted by: Mason | March 3, 2006 10:43 PM

There are definitely cultural biases against women pervading the physics community. Usually they're invisible to me, but just about every female physicist I've met has a story like Wren's. I didn't say in the original post where I think the gender gap comes from, but I'm fairly convinced that these sorts of attitudes are the dominant factor.

It seems like Berkeley's physics department has improved slightly since I arrived here. We've added two women faculty in condensed matter, and our chair is now a woman which probably helps with some of the institutional biases and visibility. On the other hand, I still look around at the condensed matter seminar and see almost uniformly men, so we're still very far from the right regime.

Jolene: It hadn't occurred to me that maybe biology does have better working conditions, but most of my knowledge is anecdotal. (I assume the pay and tenure-track issues are similar.) I'm shocked that there aren't any women in your department--are the gender ratios in chemistry similar to those in physics?

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | March 4, 2006 2:43 PM

I am a bit anxious about the day when I have to ask some of the Astro faculty at Santa Cruz for letters of recommendation while applying for Community College or Cal State jobs. Like they won't be able to understand why I don't want to apply for high-powered postdocs. I'm just getting back on track after burning out in grad school, so would I willingly apply for jobs where the probability of re-burning out is high? No thanks!

Posted by: Laura | March 4, 2006 4:36 PM

I found my postdoctoral experience to be reinvigorating after the grad-school burnout. (I did get teaching burn-out towards the end of the one at Georgia Tech, but that's a separate issue.)

Re: the Cal State bit: You might also want to consider some of the liberal arts colleges. Many of those tend have a very nice sense of community between faculty and students and I think have quite a lot to offer. Some of them also have very good students. The teaching and research expectations of Cal States versus liberal arts schools are also comparable.

Posted by: Mason | March 4, 2006 5:31 PM

Although all four of the biology labs I've worked in here at Tech have had plenty of women working in them, a significant number were working as lab techs, lab managers, assistant researchers--ie, out of the grad-postdoc-PI food chain. Before I left my previous lab, there were 5 postdocs (4 male, 1 female), 3 grad students (2 male, 1 female), and 4 lab techs (1 male, 3 female). So even though the gender ratio was close to 1:1, the power distribution was seriously out of balance.

My current lab has no grad students or post docs; we're all just lab techs. We're also all women, mostly with kids. I don't think that's a coincidence; lab tech positions have flexible schedules but don't require you to work more than 40 hours a week. This at least fixes the problems with working conditions and pay, although job security still leaves something to be desired.

Incidentally, the two biology labs I know of that have female PIs have a MUCH higher proportion of female grads/postdocs in them. They're also (anecdotally) more social; there's one in Kerchoff basement where they throw baby showers for each other, and the break room has a full kitchen where people sometimes bake desserts. It's much like the difference between the Women's and Men's Glee Clubs here at Tech: 60 women come to rehearsals for the socialization as much as the singing; we even have regular parties outside of rehearsals. I don't know what keeps the men in the glee club, but as they're down to 15 members, it's not working very well.

Wren, your comment about word-of-mouth is interesting; I wonder if that changes depending on the position being filled. I've certainly had very beneficial experiences with word-of-mouth, but that was for lab tech positions. Things might change for postdoc and faculty positions.

Posted by: Lanth | March 5, 2006 3:42 AM

I think part of it is that women have difficulty (for a whole bunch of reasons) self-promoting. The women I do know in eps who have gotten faculty jobs after grad school or after their first postdoc have been relentless, to the point of brown-nosing and putting off their peers. Or they've had someone very influential promoting them.

And yeah, I think it totally depends on the position. The professor (whose name I've forgotten) said that when it came to faculty hires, the commitees are really looking for "who they see in the mirror every morning." I'd imagine that's different for lab positions.

Posted by: Wren | March 5, 2006 7:54 AM

Gazebo: Chemistry is somewhere between biology and physics as far as male/female ratios go. It's like what Lanth said though--females will attract more females. Departments that already have female faculty will tend to attract more female faculty, because a female chemistry professor applying for a job at Scripps might wonder, "Why aren't there any women there already?" and instead take the job offer from a different institution of the same level.

Posted by: Jolene | March 5, 2006 1:19 PM

It's not only labs with females attracting more females; it's also other subcomponents (or even entire professions) with females attracting more females. That's why I was mentioning the self-perpetuation of 1:1 ratios in some departments.

As for getting faculty jobs at research institutions after the first postdoc, that's hard for everybody in certain disciplines---including many (most?) of those in physics. This particular aspect of the situation is tougher across the board for many subjects. The only physics people I know who have gotten faculty positions at such places with a single postdoc are all really hot shit. Several of them have been fully tenured O(6) years have their Ph.D.s. I see the people interviewing for the same positions where I've interviewed and nearly all of them are in their 30s with 5+ years of postdocking and nearly all of them currently have postdocs at one of only about 8 cream-of-the-crop institutions (as if other places didn't even exist), and (as has been discussed extensively here) nearly all of them are male.

There are a number of very smart people in my field (nonlinear dynamics is what I consider my home field, so I'm talking about that crowd) who have Ph.D.s from elite institutions who graduated about the same time I am who got really good postdocs and who after their first postdoc are getting jobs at (primarily) teaching schools on the order of Cal States. A few of them are getting jobs at low-end research schools, and I am one of the few who decided to take a second postdoc (in part because I got enough bites from the type of school I really want, in part because it gave me the chance to come back to Caltech [both socially and academically], and in part because just having it say 'Caltech' for my postdoc increases the chance of getting the job I want even completely ignoring issues of the quality of my work, which I think is pretty damn good and deserving of a job at that type of place). Anyway, the point is that to get a tenure-track job at that type of school requires a huge commitment in how hard one is willing to work and how much time one is willing to spend going up the ladder, and most people of all stripes are (very sensibly and for a variety of reasons) not willing to do that.

And the 40 hour work week point Lanth mentioned is especially apt. I was finishing up a progress report at 1:30 am on "Friday" (Saturday, really) and there are times I think about why the Hell I am doing this to myself. But at the end of the day, I am also very stubborn, very ambitious, and willing to make to put myself through such things to get what I want. Honestly, I think it takes that level of commitment to ultimately get a job at that kind of place. (Well, the other option is to be brilliant, but I know very few people who truly have that particular luxury. Most of the faculty members I know worked their asses off and continue to do so.)

Posted by: Mason | March 5, 2006 3:02 PM

not sure if you chemist and physists consider Competer Science a true sceine or more engineering but here are my 2 cents.

At RPI CS and Physics were ted at the undergrad level for worst ratio (13 males to 1 female) though we did have 2 female CS professors. Now out in the working world the ratio still remains really bad at least where I am (25 people in my group with 2 females). At Sharon's job it is a bit better. I am not sure why this is since the work life balance in software is manageable in many cases. So my conclusion is it is just from society driving girls away from math and science which is a shame.

Posted by: shellock | March 6, 2006 8:21 AM

I think the working conditions plays a bigger role than already having a large number of women. Academia is a pretty crappy lifestyle for anyone who wants to have a life outside of work. That's the big reason I'm teaching at a JC instead of going on to a postdoc.

I remember visiting grad schools and concluding that I never wanted to work for a female professor. Women and men have different management styles. The flip side of all the friendliness and socializing in the lab of a female PI tends to be a lot more micro-managing and intrusion into your personal life. At least that's what I found in the groups I visited.

Posted by: Jenny | March 6, 2006 12:58 PM

I will say that my experience regarding socialization has been the opposite: my current lab (under a male PI) is much more social than the lab I worked in as an undergrad (under a female PI). But this is obviously a case where individual personalities are the dominant effect, and the general trend is in how personalities are distributed among genders.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | March 6, 2006 1:06 PM

Gazebo: The researcher for whom you worked as an undergrad is an outlier in many, many respects---especially with respect to the current state of her eyebrows.

She's actually a very nice person and has been one of the professors who has been quite friendly to me since I returned (as opposed to the postdocs should be seen and not heard attitude and variants thereof), but at the same time, she's exceptionally intense and life in her lab presumably reflects it.

Posted by: Mason | March 6, 2006 1:24 PM
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