Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Women and Careers in Science

Okay, are you ready to feel like you really do deserve that drinking bout you’ve been contemplating recently? Well, let me help you make that decision with this little article.

If I wasn’t cranking away at Birds in the News right now, I’d be joining you at the local watering hole five minutes ago.


  1. #1 Todd Crane
    March 16, 2006

    Great article. A real soul-searcher. Reminds me of the moment of truth I had during my post-doc when I was trying to decide between going into industry vs. academia. After realizing that my talents lied in teaching, I responded to a job posting in Chemical and Engineering News to teach at a magnet high school focusing on math and science. Six years later I’m still pretty happy. Once you realize that 50% of school administrators are morons and easily manipulated and the other 50% want to do right by the kids, you can teach an honest to goodness science class. This is especially true if you have some talented students like I do. I’ve got great friends from a variety of disciplines and get to do some fun extracurricular activities with the kids like science fair projects and sports. So, if you’re a scientist looking for a career change there’s a huge need for you in secondary education. In the right situation, you could be quite happy finacially and otherwise.

  2. #2 Anonymous On This One
    March 16, 2006

    As a rather late-starting undergrad approaching this field, the graduate stipend of $1800/mo. doesn’t sound so bad. Not to pick nits on that depressing article, but some of us work 50+ hours per week (as skilled laborers) for that net pay, and somehow manage to pay tuition and do the undergrad work (concomitant sleep deprivation and acquired neurosis as a result, but whatever). If that is what a grad student gets as stipend, it’s a step up for a large number of us. It’s also higher than the (admittedly miscalculated) poverty level for a family of four in this country.

    That’s not to say I don’t agree with the general argument here, but that point seems weak to me.

  3. #3 Leah
    March 16, 2006

    One thing lacking in this article is an explanation of what people who studied science as an undergrad should ultimately do. I majored in biology at a liberal arts school (so, broad background in lots of fields). I love to write, I enjoy teaching, and I’ve enjoyed the research I have done. I like reading literature. It seemed only natural to get my PhD, so I’ve applied to programs in ecology/evolution (but haven’t yet heard back, tho I should know by the end of March whether or not I’m in at the two places I interviewed).

    Would you recommend a different path, given your experiences? I don’t see many choices other than going back to school to become either a teacher, a science journalist, or some environmental education specialist. I could conceivably go to law school, but I’m not interested in the pitfalls of environmental law (ie lots of school for either low pay jobs or sell out jobs). What are your thoughts on the options available to young women who pursued biology in undergrad?

  4. #4 N/A
    March 16, 2006

    $1,800 dollars per month is not a bad wage. Heck, I come from a poor family. I have never had money to spend freely. I wouldn’t know what to do with $1,800. This is not even taking into account the wage of my future wife (currently engaged).

    So why am I going into science? I have a deep, very deep, passion for genetic syndrome research (some say itís even an addiction). I canít even think of doing anything besides research that deals with genetic syndromes. If I only make $30,000 a year for the rest of my life I would be happy.

    As an undergraduate, I read journal articles everyday that interests me. I even have a person email set up where I receive an eTOC for every genetics journal that is online.

  5. #5 Sara
    March 17, 2006

    Ask me what kind of a yearly pay cut I am willing to take to never wear pantyhose and a skirt, not have to punch a clock, not have to beg to go to the dentist, and get paid to think deep thoughts about the universe. Notice how the article doesn’t really get into that issue.

    Science can be pretty decent if you stay out of the slavedriving labs / fields, and make sure that the tradeoff between money and lifestyle are worth it. The article makes some good points, especially for certain disciplines, but there are still a few important counterpoints that he misses or overgeneralizes.

  6. #6 David Harmon
    March 17, 2006

    This guy strikes me as a classic cynic — that is, a frustrated idealist. That said, he does have a lot of good points, plus a couple that (unlike Summers) he’s smart enough to leave hanging between the lines. (And so am I! ūüėČ )

    As an offshoot of the discussion — might the low pay in academia represent an adaptive defense against poseurs?

  7. #7 Tara C. Smith
    March 17, 2006

    Yeah, it ticked me off when I read it as well–I wrote up a response here, and Derek Lowe of “In the Pipeline” has another here.

  8. #8 CCP
    March 17, 2006

    ouch. I’m not female (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but this one touched a nociceptor. Recently experienced a SECOND denial-of-tenure, at 46, complete with kid-at-home-who-needs-health-insurance (idiot administrators, nothing actually to do with ME of course). Time to think about a career change…industry? Surprisingly, there just isn’t that much call in modern industry for an experienced turtle physiologist. All I know how to do is teach and fart around with my students asking interesting esoteric questions about reptile bodies. On the other hand, it’s just so difficult to imagine an entire life full of grading lab reports. So I went to a “career counselor,” took the Strong Interest and Briggs-Meyers “assessment instruments”…and it came up recommending biologist or dentist. Now what?
    Yes, I too am a frustrated idealist = cynic. What was I thinking?

  9. #9 CCP
    March 17, 2006

    p.s. pass the Guinness

  10. #10 Kitty
    March 17, 2006

    Hmm. $1800/month is a damn good stipend – if you can get it. In the wild and wacky world of competitive funding, being very smart and highly qualified does not a stipend guarantee. Then you find yourself begging on as a low-paid teaching adjunct for another department and being horrified to realize that you now qualify for an EIC when you file your taxes – and you’re still putting in those 14-hour days. (Yes, voice of experience.)

    And if you’re a student in an area with a high cost of living, you’ll be spending about 60% of that $1800 on rent.

    Yeah. Thanks for reminding me about how much my life sucks.

  11. #11 GrrlScientist
    March 17, 2006

    wow, what a response. that article has triggered many strong reactions here and elsewhere (see the links provided by Tara in her comment).

    Todd; you said, In the right situation, you could be quite happy finacially and otherwise.

    that’s true for anyone, but i wonder what that situation is for me, since i teach so i can do science, but the reverse is absolutely NOT true for me.

    anonymous; i “live” (survive — barely — is better than “live”) on less than $1800 per month now in NYC, without any benefits such as medical/dental care, so that wage looks great to me, too.

    Leah; i am not a very good person to ask these questions of since i have proven myself to be a chronic underachiever, but i am curious to knowwhy are you getting the PhD? i would advise you to think long and hard about your reasons for pursuing the PhD and what this degree will do for you. if you have a specific career path in mind that requires the PhD, then i’d say to go for it, but if you aren’t sure what you want to do, or if you can pursue what you want without the PhD, then i’d advise you against getting it.

    but since you said you like teaching and writing, and you are thinking of pursuing the PhD in evo/eco, why not investigate working for environmental agencies as a public liaison of some sort? if you know what you want to do, then making this decision becomes much easier.

    N/A; the question (in my mind) is not whether you are stuck earning 30k per year (30k looks like a bonanza to me) but whether 30k per year is enough to tide you over during those long periods of unemployment that last 6-24 months at a time, between bouts of employment?

    Sara; i agree.

    David; hrm, good hypothesis regarding the poor academic pay scale, but i doubt that’s the case. the real situation is that low pay = no respect. that’s the way it is for education, in general. although i have been given lip service to the effect that “we respect you, but you should teach because you love it, because you want to give something back, and not for the money!”

    Tara; thanks for the links. i am trying not to be too depressed, but really, it’s difficult when you stand in my shoes and read this sort of thing.

    CCP; i’d also enjoy a guinness. although i’d prefer a bass. or anything, if it’s free.

    Kitty; yes, i have been doing this very thing for *ahem* years now. i hate it. and the wost thing is that adjuncts are treated worse than lepers by our colleagues. if there is any experience out there that could make a person truly hate teaching, well, trying to survive as an adjunct tops the list.

  12. #12 Kitty
    March 18, 2006

    Heh. All the prestige of being a TA, for about half the pay. I think it’s safe to say that those folks who claim they aren’t pursuing an academic career for the money are making enough money to stay in academia.

  13. #13 Sarah
    March 18, 2006

    I completely agree with the article in that science and academia in general are definitely not the way to go if you want good pay and job security, and this is probably a big factor in why so many young people either don’t go into a scientific career in the first place, or change careers when they realise there’s no future for them in science.

    But, I don’t see any evidence for the main argument – that this is a reason there are fewer women in science. Surely these problems apply to everyone regardless of gender – in fact, they are *more* likely to be a problem for a man, since men are still more likely to have a lower-earning partner, and are still more likely to be expected to be the ‘breadwinner’ for their family.

    I also don’t agree that “men are irrational, romantic, stubborn, and unwilling to admit that they’ve made a big mistake” and women are not. I don’t think these faults (qualities?) belong exclusively, or even mostly, to one gender or the other.

  14. #14 Far Away
    March 20, 2006

    One point that I think was missed: women are usually underpaid. No matter what career they chose. So not choosing a scientific career because of the money, is probably not true for women. Women frequently chose careers that don’t bring in much money.

  15. #15 NL
    April 30, 2006

    I agree with the article too. Let’s be honest with ourselves, our post-graduation prospects for basic job and fincancial security in the academic sciences are nothing to be very excited about. As I said elsewhere regarding this topic, the writing is clearly on the wall, not only in the article in question.

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