That sort of crazy talk sounds like it might be something from a right-wing political campaign, but it’s not. It’s from a letter published in this week’s Nature magazine. The authors, Timothy J. Roper & Larissa Conradt of the University of Sussex, responded to a Nature post-doc journal entry in a manner that appears sympathetic to the plight of women in science, until you read the last few lines. Then they pull a nasty switcheroo.

Here’s ~1/2 of the good part:

The career structure for young scientists must be made more family-friendly. This means, for example, making part-time work a real possibility, emphasizing quality rather than quantity of output, and taking career breaks properly into account when judging candidates for appointments and promotions.

These changes would benefit male as well as female postdocs. Many young male scientists would like to have stable relationships and families, see their partners from time to time and help bring up their children.

That’s when I found myself saying “yes, yes, yes. They get it.” And then I read this:

If these quality-of-life issues are not addressed, then initiatives aimed at bringing more women into science are to a large extent pointless, and brave words about equal opportunities are mere window dressing. Indeed, it could be regarded as unethical to encourage young women to embark on a career that they are unlikely to wish to continue beyond the age of 30.

Say what?

So, according to Roper and Conradt, because things aren’t great right now and some women get discouraged and want to quit, we should:

  • wait for a change to magically appear that makes this perfect for women?
  • fail to encourage (or even actively discourage?) women from pursuing science careers?
  • totally disregard the lip service just paid to involved fathers, because if we really believed that, we would have to discourage men from science careers too ?
  • totally ignore the fact that some women never plan to have children and so are relatively unaffected by issues related to child-rearing?
  • decide what’s best for young women seeking advice and mentoring based on stereotypes?
  • ignore the scores of women who do want to continue in science past age 30, with or without children? After all, they’re just aberrations, right?
  • completely ignore the majority of science-related jobs outside academia and where some of these issues have been better addressed?
  • I swear, the longer I stay on this beat, the more often I think Zuska’s onto something with the shoe-puking routine.

    No? That’s not what Roper and Conradt meant? They don’t really deserve to clean their shoes? Then let’s try to rewrite their last paragraph. How about this?

    If these quality-of-life issues are not addressed, then public proclamations of equal opportunities are somewhat meaningless and even honest initiatives aimed at bringing more women into academic science will not be fully successful. Indeed, even as we continue to encourage young women to pursue the full range of scientific and technical careers, we all must actively work to make academic science careers more friendly to both women and men with lives and families outside the ivory tower.

    Ah much better.


  1. #1 Peggy
    October 23, 2008

    Wow, that sounds a lot like “why should we give girls scholarships/a college education/a job with possibility of promotion if they are just going to get married, have babies and quit”? And since we are talking about encouraging girls, that means that they don’t expect the culture of science to change substantially in the decade or two it will take for them to reach their 30s. Depressing.

  2. #2 Lab Lemming
    October 24, 2008

    I think we should stop giving scholarships to humans, because they are all going to die.

  3. #3 Dr. Free-Ride
    October 24, 2008

    It certainly seems like we should be upfront about the challenges inherent in the system as it stands now for *anyone* who wants to be a scientist and have a life outside the lab (whether that involves childrearing, elder care, community activities, whatever). And yes, given accurate information about the lay of the land, some really smart, talented people might opt out of science.

    But dammit, there are a whole lot of women who love science with a burning passion. It’s pretty paternalistic to decide that they will be unlikely to want to pursue it beyond the age of 30.

    What they *will* be likely to do, once they’re in the pipeline, is to get the systemic factors that stack the deck against them fixed. It’s a big job, and it seems pretty unfair to make junior scientists shoulder the burden themselves. Perhaps some greybeards could step the hell up.

  4. #4 Disgruntled Julie
    October 24, 2008

    While I understand that the way the article approached the issue is off-base — I do think that more effort should be placed into explaining the precise lifestyle involved. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it would be hard work and time consuming, but I didn’t realize HOW time consuming. I was thinking 7am-7pm 6 days a week, and I was fine with that. I was fine with working at home on top of that. I could have a life with those hours. I could have children with those hours. But this morning, I got into lab at 4:30am. It’s midnight, and I’m still in lab, and I’ll be here for at least 2 more hours, and I have to be back by 6:30am tomorrow. This isn’t the exception for me — this is the norm. I seem to have at least one 24-36 hour day/week, and then work 14+ hours the other 5-6 days. I can’t even begin to think about children, because I literally go days without seeing my husband. Working 12 hours a day is manageable — children can go into childcare, spouse can help. But working 36 hours at a time? And often unpredictable? When I came in today, I thought I would be done by 6pm. I had no concept that I’d still be here come 2am. What do you do then? Tell your childcare provider that you’ll pick up your child whenever — maybe tonight, maybe the next night, maybe next week — whenever your experiment is finished? And this won’t stop when I finally earn that Ph.D. — post-docs in this lab have have spent the night here plenty of times working on experiments. So from what I’ve seen, it’s science or family — you can’t really have both. I’m not saying it will never change, or that we should stop trying to achieve both, but at least from my experience, that fact IS shoved under the rug and hidden to young women pressured to go into science. When I was in high school and the star of my science classes, nobody stopped and told me that if I went into science, I’d wind up sacrificing my family, friends, and marriage for the sake of my experiments. Even as an undergrad, all the labs I worked with were entirely male dominated (in fact, come to think of it, I was always the only female) so I never had a chance to see first hand.

    Perhaps the answer is honesty, starting from an earlier age, and allowing individuals to make the decision themselves. Maybe I would have chosen the same path — after all, science was what interested me the most — but I would have been better prepared for what sacrifices I would have been making, and may have made different decisions in my personal life as a result.

  5. #5 Cooking Recipes
    October 24, 2008

    I agree with the privious post. The career structure for young scientists must be made more family-friendly.

  6. #6 estraven
    October 24, 2008

    @Disgruntled Julie: I seem to have at least one 24-36 hour day/week, and then work 14+ hours the other 5-6 days.

    In your shoes, I wouldn’t be disgruntled. I would be raving mad. No human being, female or male, partnered or single, should be required to work like that. Science is supposed to make us fully humans, not machines. I work 10 hours/day in the office, plus some on the weekend, and I already think it’s too much.

  7. #7 Rugosa
    October 24, 2008

    Wow, my high-school guidance counselor circa 1968 has been pretty busy for someone who must be in her 80s. A few years ago, she wrote a screed for Larry Summers about how women just aren’t suited for science careers. Now she writes a piece for Nature about how women shouldn’t embark on science careers at all, lest it conflict with their primary interest, having babies.

  8. #8 qma
    October 24, 2008

    Yes, your last paragraph is better. It’s also important to give them credits for bringing up this issue.

  9. #9 Mimi
    October 24, 2008

    Your rewrite is better… I don’t even know how to respond to that except for ARGH!

  10. #10 Sigmund
    October 24, 2008

    Apart from the obvious sexist aspect to the way they wrote the piece they do actually have a point.
    I think its unethical to encourage both male AND females to begin a career in scientific research without fully informing them of the future career paths (for instance the likelihood that they have a less than 10% chance of becoming a career researcher and may be forced to leave the profession in order to make ends meet).

  11. #11 Female Engineering Professor
    October 24, 2008

    @Disgruntled Julie – Your current working schedule sounds truly abusive. But I have to say that having kids and working 7am-7pm is a recipe for disaster. Small children aren’t awake much outside those hours. Your children won’t know you and your partner will resent you. I worked at a daycare the summer before graduate school. The kids who were picked up at 6pm were so tired and pitiful it broke my heart.

  12. #12 Becca
    October 24, 2008

    @Disgruntled Julie- WHY?

    @Female Engineering Professor- Stop. Think. Would you really be telling a young male doctor who worked as a resident not to work 12 hour shifts, because his children won’t know him and his wife will resent him? First, I don’t believe the odds are as universially dismal as you seem to assume (though I’ll readily agree 12 hour shifts for anyone are not a recipe for a happy family life!). Second, and I’m guessing here, but I’ll bet you are more comfortable saying it to a woman than a man. As long as we expect men to be more resentful of women’s career responsibilities, something is rotten in the state of gender relations.

    @Sigmund- I mostly agree but sometimes I think it’s just plain dishonest to encourage anyone to go for a career in STEM fields- whether you “fully inform” them or not. The system is that sick. See DJ above.
    Of course, I’m the sort to that would almost certainly think the same thing about corporate workspace. *sigh* I should just go live on The Farm.

    When I was a LittleBecca, I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. Somebody had the sense to tell me that “starving artist” was not just a sterotype. My art teacher also had the sense (obviously biased by her experience, but still quite reasonable) to tell me that making a living doing art was hard, although making a living with teaching and doing art is a much safer plan.
    I wish I’d had a role model to tell me that making a living doing scientiifc research is hard, and that many (most?) people who do are already making that teaching ‘compromise’ and it’s still hyper-competitive.

  13. #13 Anonymous
    October 24, 2008

    Yes, yes. I agree that science is not family friendly and shame on Roper, Conradt, and Nature for publishing that tripe. But come on, commenters. Can we also please agree that a career in academic science has *a lot* of advantages for women who want to have families? Disgruntled Julie’s situation is messed up, but it is not typical for faculty (male or female), or most grad students, or most postdocs. (And in the case of grad students and postdocs who do work such long hours, it’s temporary).

    I admit that I am tired of being told that I can’t be both a devoted scientist and an involved mother. I’m both. It can be done. Let’s move on to changing the aspects of academia that still need changing.

  14. #14 Disgruntled Julie
    October 24, 2008

    Anonymous — What are these “*a lot*” of advantages for women who want to have families? From my point of view in my lab, I don’t see advantages. Yes, there are women who do have families, and they get by, but I don’t see any advantages over women in other fields, I see them struggle much harder compared to friends and family who chose other career paths. I’d be quite interested to hear what positive experiences you have. Please, enlighten us — share the advantages you have had, so that those of us following in your footsteps have hope.

  15. #15 Anonymous
    October 24, 2008

    Why are you so pissed off at me, Disgruntled Julie? Does it really bother you that there are successful women scientists with kids? Isnít that a good thing?

    But, to begin to answer your (insincere?) question: For me, one of the biggest advantages of academia has been the flexible schedule. It doesnít sound like youíre in a situation right now that has a flexible schedule, but I hope your situation is temporary. None of my friends who works full time outside of academia has the flexibility I have. I can easily knock off for a couple of hours in the middle of the day to go to my kidís Halloween party. And Iíll do that next week. If one of my kids is sick, I can leave work to care for them without losing pay or risking my job. Granted, Iíll stay/get up in the middle of the night to make up the hours, but at least I have the option. In fact, there are very few times during the week when I absolutely have to be in my office. I know this applies mostly to faculty and not so much to grad students and postdocs (although I made sure my postdoc knew she could make her schedule flexible if she needed). Think of it as the light at the end of the tunnel. It gets better as you advance. Being a professor (and a scientist) is a great job. At least, it is for me.

    Iíll let other commenters add to the list. Iíve got to get back to my manuscriptÖ.

  16. #16 Disgruntled Julie
    October 24, 2008

    Anonymous, my question was in no way insincere, and I apologize if it came off in that fashion. I was honestly asking, what do you see to be the many advantages? None of the other commenters had pointed any out, and you seemed to think there were so many, and I was curious as to what they were. As I ended with, those of us coming through the pipeline need hope from those of you who have been there. I am absolutely not pissed at you, and it is in no way a bad thing that there are successful women scientists with families — that is a GREAT thing. But those women need to share the secrets to success, which was all I was asking — what did you seem think the advantages were in science, over other careers, as I had yet to see any. My apologies if it came off as an attack, it certainly was not intended that way.

  17. #17 ecogeofemme
    October 24, 2008

    I didn’t interpret the last sentence the way everyone else seems to. I read it as a rather scathing attack meant to support women in science by saying that talking about problems doesn’t fix them and it’s not fair to lead on young scientists by telling them we’re making efforts to redesign the system when we’re not really changing anything fundamental. So we need to look at the fundamentals of the system.

    Your rewrite is certainly more clear, but I think the orginal has more bite. But I guess that doesn’t matter if readers can interpret it so differently. Or maybe I’m missing something entirely.

  18. #18 Female Engineering Professor
    October 24, 2008

    @Becca – There’s no question I’d tell a male that. Just ask my husband.

    I just don’t understand some of the parents (notice I’m saying parents – not just mothers) that I know. They were committed to things like breastfeeding because they knew it was important for the health and well-being of their children. Excellent! But they don’t make getting home at a reasonable time a priority. I think having a family ritual such as dinner several times a week is just as important (if not more) to the health and well-being of children. You can’t leave work at 7, get home, make/buy a nutritious meal/ eat/ go over homework/ get to sports activitiy/ come home/ have bath/ brush teeth/ read books/ snuggle and get the kids to bed by 8. It just doesn’t work. Well – maybe Dr. Isis could. She is a goddess.

    And I agree with Anonymous that the flexibility to go to the pumpkin patch with your kid’s class or skip out early to get to the earlier dance class is one of the key advantages of the faculty life!

  19. #19 wokka
    October 24, 2008

    I agree with estraven. One hundred years ago (or more) workers were fighting for a 40 hour work week and reasonable wages. I would say it’s really unacceptable that there are still people who have to work too much all the time. What kind of life is this? Why do we desire it at all? Why is it not possible to have a life and a job?

    I know work culture is different in different countries, and my impression is that the US and Japan are among the worst for work/life balance at university. I love my job, but I need time for my family and for my own things (yes, I have hobbies — and I’m not ashamed of admitting it) to feel balanced and be able to focus.

    I got my child before I finished my PhD, and my husband helped to take care of her. He stayed at home when I was writing, and I could work part time and go home to breastfeed. That worked so well, and I wish everyone would have the chance to slow down like that at some points in life. Men too, of course! I think kids need their fathers, and fathers should be allowed to be with their kids in their early years.

    Of course I don’t know what will happen after my postdoc. I will find some kind of job, but I will not feel like a failure if I go to industry. I will not stay at home, if I can help it, but I will come home and play with my daughter in the evenings.

  20. #20 phdmomof3
    October 24, 2008

    I have three children and a full-time career as a successful scientist at a National Lab. There are other choices outside academia, and contractor science, or government science is one of those areas where I see alot of flexibility. One question I saw posed in several of these posts is what the potential advantages might be to have children plus a career in science (if I am interpreting that correctly!). Well, my first answer to that is hard to explain to those that do not have children. Being a mom and doing what I love are self-fulfilling. A more practical response might be that I love my job, and feel like I am setting a good example for my two daughters in that women can achieve the career of their choice without draconian compromises. Yes, I attend some school functions, chaperone field trips, and run to doctor appointments. But I have never felt like my career had to take a back seat to motherly duties. I think it helps tremendously that I have a spouse committed to making this work as a family, and recognizing my drive and passion for my job as well. I’ve learned an intricate balancing act over the last 14 years, and its so second nature to me now. In the beginning I do remember stressing over the dual role, but just worked through it and found a career path that provided opportunity and reward while allowing me time for family.

  21. #21 postdoc thinking about kids
    October 24, 2008

    While academia does provide lots of flexability for participating in older kid’s activites, what about having a career as, say a post-doc and working 10 hours a day with small children. You have to put them in daycare 10 hours a day, especially if your spouse is also a postdoc. I think Female Engeneering Professor has an excellent point about the kids being so heartbreaking at the daycare where she worked. I’ve seen it too. Of couse it CAN be done, as a woman you can have a career and have kids. But when it means you have to put your small children in daycare 10 of the 12 hours thay are awake a day, why would you want to? I don’t get it. At that point, even with weekends, your kids are spending more of their waking hours with a daycare staff than you. And even with high quality care, it is still daycare, and not a loving parent.

    I’m tired of people saying that you can work 12 hours a day and still have quality time with your babies. It just doesn’t happen. Even the famed Goddess Dr. Isis’s kids mistake a vacuum cleaner for her.

    You can have a career and kids. People do it all the time. But it’s the small children who never see their parents who suffer, and I think it makes a difference in how they turn out. And I do think it’s something that beginning scientists should consider, as it is a really big lifestyle choice.

  22. #22 JaneDoh
    October 25, 2008

    I am on the TT in the physical sciences at a research intensive university. I have a 2 year old, and I am pregnant with #2. My child goes to daycare 8 to 9 hours a day, 5 days a week. As a baby, she went 2X per week, and DH and I balanced the rest. We have breakfast and dinner together as a family, and have our playtime and our rituals. Little Jane LOVES her daycare, and can’t wait to go in the mornings. She also loves her parents and is excited to see us when we pick her up. DH and I make it work by trading off drop off/pick up, scheduling our weekends in advance, and cooking 1 or 2 times per month, all day, and freezing the results so we can all eat healthy meals without extensive prep during the workweek.

    Yes, an academic career is hard work, and it can be long hours. But most careers are–research doesn’t seem all that different from other high intensity careers (lawyer, MBA, finance, doctor, etc). Part of the issue is the awful work culture in the US, which demands that work expand to fill all available hours. It is not just in academia that being able to work like a robot is valued and held up as the gold standard.

    Yes, getting ahead in science is easier for people who live like monks or nuns. But, still, everyone I know makes tradeoffs between career time and other parts of life. Yes, society expects that family issues (kids, elder care, etc.) will be the woman’s job–my solution was to find a mate who wants to be an equal partner in raising our kids.

    In what ways is academia family friendly? I can take my child to work with me in my office when necessary. I had no issues pumping when I needed to. My hours are completely flexible (as a PP said), so I can go to important events in my child’s life. I work as hard as I want to–no one is looking over at my actual hours, just at my output. Being efficient in work is rewarded by more free time (unlike in industry/face time demanding occupations). I am doing something I love. My work is in general flexible enough that I can work from home if I want to (except when I need to teach or do something in lab). I can take long vacations, especially during the summer when my kids will be out of school as well.

    Even when I was a grad student, I never worked 7 days a week. I rarely worked more than 10-12 hours a day, and I rarely did more than 2-3 12 hour days in a row before taking a break. As a postdoc, I traded longer hours for a 5.5 day work week. Like most people, I work better and more efficiently when I can take regular breaks. Disgruntled Julie, your lab seems like a majorly abusive situation.

    You can have a career and kids–lots of people do. Between DH and myself, our child spends more time with a parent than many of our friends’ kids. I will admit, I don’t have much personal time right now, and DH and I rarely get out as a couple. This is the choice I made when I decided that both career and family are high priority for me. That’s why I am commenting in the middle of the night. ūüôā

  23. #23 JaneDOh
    October 25, 2008

    One further thought–I love my child, but I could never stay home fulltime with her. The play of 2 year olds is mind-numblingly tedious. I greatly admire fulltime childcare workers for being capable of being excited and engaged 8+ hours a day with such young kids. I really enjoy the time we spend together, but I can’t even imagine spending 12 hours a day with her, everyday.

  24. #24 Alex
    October 25, 2008

    1) Disgruntled Julie, not all of science is like that. Yes, we all went through some insane spells in graduate school, but for most people I knew those were brief intervals at crucial times, not regular routines. There were some labs in which that was a routine, but the people coming out of those labs were not noticeably more successful than the rest of us. Your professor is managing the projects poorly if the only way to get anything done is to be in there 100 hours/week every week.

    2) The life of an assistant professor at a research university is insane. Not all of academia is like that. I won’t pretend that my job at a primarily undergraduate institution is easy, but it is not as insane as the life of a professor in a Ph.D.-granting department.

    3) Yes, the end of that letter in Nature was very reminiscent of “Why hire a young woman if she’ll just get married and pregnant and quit?” and that is inexcusable. However, it is also a predictable response to the fact that so many discussions of STEM and gender are focused on the difficulty of having children as an assistant professor at a major research university. That is an important dimension of the topic of STEM and gender, but it is not the only dimension.

    Being at a primarily undergraduate institution, preparing students (male or female) to be assistant professors at research universities is simply not on my radar. Yes, a few of my students probably will pursue that path eventually, but the vast majority will do something else. From where I sit (and where most science faculty sit) the critical issue is just getting as many students as possible into STEM in the first place, so that they can learn about science and pick from a range of opportunities to do interesting and important things. If my main sales pitch to 18 year-old women (or men) is “Don’t worry, we’re doing everything we can to make it possible for you to have children and still work towards tenure at a research university when you’re in your 30’s” then I am completely missing my audience.

    4) Finally, I would just observe that assistant professors at research universities are pursuing membership in an elite class: They seek to publish as often as possible in the most popular venues, join the elite advisory panels, receive the big grants, and sit with the stars. In every time and age, and in every profession, people pursuing the greatest status and recognition and money have almost always had nannies. Yes, there have always been exceptions, and they deserve our admiration, but the fact is that the pursuit of status tends to drain a lot from a person, and require a personal sacrifice that I am not prepared to endorse or recommend for anybody.

    I realize that most people who go to research universities just plain love science, but their institutions require them to achieve high status in order to obtain tenure. Though pride and ambition may not have been their original motivators, these are what the institutions require of them, and it is a draining thing, with implications that go far beyond gender issues. Some handle it quite well, but not all, and the nature of this beast is far more complicated than the gender dimension.

  25. #25 Bob O'H
    October 26, 2008

    I’m with ecogeofemme on this – I read the last paragraph as trying to paint a picture of what might happen if we don’t do anything. It’s a classic carrot and stick approach – because we (and they) don’t want what they describe to happen, we should do something about it.

  26. #26 grad student
    October 26, 2008

    I was just thinking: the military (at least in the US) doesn’t seem to have any problem encouraging youngsters to embark on a career path in which they are likely not to survive until age 20. Why should science be any different?

  27. #27 Anonymous
    October 26, 2008

    I agree with phdmomof3 that kids and science are both fulfilling parts of who I am (though I’m impressed that you have three!).

    Here’s a new question: Do kids make you a better scientist? And does being a scientist make you a better parent? Until I had kids, I always viewed the Broader Impacts statements on NSF proposals to be a little, well, bullshitty. Necessary, but often totally contrived. I see it differently now. Having kids makes me take outreach much more seriously, and also makes me keep an eye on the big picture. This is partly because the schools are doing such a dismal job in teaching science literacy to kids. The flip side is that my kids (and the kids of all the scientist-moms who have been commenting, I’m sure) are very science-literate despite their public school education!

  28. #28 Arlenna
    October 26, 2008

    ***”I didn’t interpret the last sentence the way everyone else seems to. I read it as a rather scathing attack meant to support women in science by saying that talking about problems doesn’t fix them and it’s not fair to lead on young scientists by telling them we’re making efforts to redesign the system when we’re not really changing anything fundamental. So we need to look at the fundamentals of the system.

    Your rewrite is certainly more clear, but I think the orginal has more bite. But I guess that doesn’t matter if readers can interpret it so differently. Or maybe I’m missing something entirely.”***

    I read this the same way as ecogeofemme: absolutely NOT as saying “why bother since they’ll have babies” but as that scathing kind of “come on people, stop talking and start DOING because otherwise this is all pointless.”

    Particularly in the context of what else they had to say throughout, I think that is absolutely what they meant. I am pretty sure this was a rhetorical device that was a little too easily misinterpreted.

  29. #29 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 26, 2008

    Sciencewoman, I am afraid you are misinterpreting. It was clearly intended as a rhetorical device analogous to reductio ad absurdum. In my opinion, it was quite effective.

  30. #30 Kathryn
    October 26, 2008

    One thing not everyone understands is that some experiments can’t be completed in 8 hours or whatever just because that is the nature of the experiment. Not because your boss is a slave driver–the process can’t be interrupted to go home on time. Now, having to do those experiments all the time may be a management issue. I’m pursuing a master’s degree at a very laid back school and doing coursework too, so I just can’t schedule many experiments.

    For example, if I want to examine a batch of my C. elegans at 4-, 8-, and 12-hour intervals after treatment, this is the schedule:
    elapsed time
    0:00 Get to lab to set everything up
    1:00 Start treatments at 30-min intervals for 5 treatments
    between treatments, prepare eggs to hatch for next day’s work
    3:00 Finish adding worms to treatments
    break 1.5 hrs
    4:30 Get ready to start observations
    5:00 Start observing 4-hr treatments (takes ~20-25 min to observe each batch, so I’m on the microscope almost continuously)
    7:45 4-hr observations complete and files saved
    break 1 hr
    8:45 Get ready for 8-hr observations
    9:00 Start observing 8-hr treatments as above
    11:45 8-hr observations complete and files saved
    break 1 hr
    12:45 Get ready for 12-hr observations
    13:00 Start observing 12-hr observations as above
    15:45 12-hr observations complete and files saved
    break 15 min
    16:00 Clean up microscope room and lab
    16:30 Enter day’s data on computer for LC50 values
    17:00 Go home and sleep!
    break 7 hrs includes time to get home, get ready in morning, get back to campus
    24:00 Return to start the next day’s experiment

    I can do this for a few days, but after that, I need a rest. Usually what I end up doing is analyze the data and make a poster, then go to a conference.

    I don’t know if I’d want to spend the rest of my life trying to do this just 5 days a week, let alone 6 or 7. That’s why I’m taking art classes and aiming for scientific illustration/visualization. At least that way, if I have long days I’m likely to be working at home and I won’t be on a strict “do it at time X or the experiment is a waste” timetable.

  31. #31 anonymous
    October 26, 2008

    I do not find the last sentence of that article offensive. In fact, I believe that that sentence displays a level of understanding that is actually under-appreciated by many trainers of young scientists. It was a love of chemistry that drove me to pursue an undergraduate degree in chemistry at a prestigious liberal arts college, and to enter the PhD program I am now trying to complete at an equally prestigious university. However, as I struggle with what to do when I grow up, I am constantly struck by the frustrating feeling that I was lied to.

    I, too, heard the “starving artist” rationale when considering pursuing my other passion, music. But I don’t think it’s any easier to be really successful in my current field. I am just now realizing that I will have to choose between having a completely fulfilling family life and having a truly successful career – I just do not believe it is possible to have both in this field.

    I work for a very famous female professor, who would be first to tell you how she thinks she has it all, but I’ve seen the reality: long hours, daycare and after school programs, alternating week nights and weekends with the child while the other works – this would not cut it for me.

    Furthermore, I see my peers who are entering assistant professor positions at top research universities. They are single – they have given up having any semblance of a life in pursuit of success. I like chemistry *a lot* – but it is not by any means enough to sustain me alone.

    I don’t think we should discourage women – or men – from entering the field just because it isn’t currently particularly family-friendly. I do think, though, that honesty is the best policy. I wish someone had explained to me exactly what it would take to pursue a research career when I was first starting out. I don’t know that it would have necessarily changed my path (though, it might have). But at least I wouldn’t feel so frustrated and betrayed, like all of my decisions have been based on a reality that doesn’t actually exist.

  32. #32 Renee
    October 27, 2008

    They were just being dramatic. You fail at reading between the lines.

  33. #33 bored mom
    October 27, 2008

    Jane DOh, I too had a 2 year old with another on the way and I was still able to maintain a demanding career, full steam ahead as well as a satisfying family life. We had awesome daycare whose hours I controlled. That’s the easy part of work / family balance – one toddler is a breeze.

    It got much harder with the second one, more than I’d anticipated. I had to slow down at work. But it was still doable. But now fast forward 5 years later. There are a lot more demands. You don’t have so much flexibility any more. Elementary kids have more needs than toddlers who are perfectly happy in a high quality daycare. And when one of my kids was discovered to have fairly common special needs, even though he only requires a couple of extra hours per week, there was no slack left. I love science just as much as I ever did, more than my scientist husband. But our family can only handle one of us doing this and my husband has a highly paid position in industry. I’m done. Finished, washed up at 40. I’m not happy about it.

  34. #34 Female Engineering Professor
    October 27, 2008

    I think bored mom touches on an important point:
    There is so little margin in our lifestyles. When something happens that requires extra effort – I don’t always have much left down in my reserves. And it’s not just mental. Whenever I get a cold, it always goes bacterial- I have to get antiobiotics. My immune system is just shot after 5 years of not enough sleep.

    I think another part of the problem is that academic jobs typically take us away from our family and established social networks that can help with babysitting, etc. It’s hard to build new social networks when you’re slaving away at that T-T job or postdoc or research assistantship.

    But back to the positives:
    1. There is a part of my brain that just loves solving engineering problems. I once remarked to another FEP that I wouldn’t want to quit my job because it would mean I wouldn’t have a reason to write any MATLAB code. I ADORE writing new MATLAB code. And I fundamentally like teaching. I like figuring out new material and figuring out how to convey it to my students.
    2. I also teach at an undergraduate school. Now that I’m tenured, I choose to take about 6 weeks off in the summer to be with my kids. We pack up and go spend a month or more at the family cabin on a lake. This to me, is the best perk of all.

  35. #35 Anonymous
    October 27, 2008

    The last paragraph of the letter may have been meant to be a rhetorical device, but it was a poor choice. Unfortunately, too many people already believe precisely that – that it *is* unethical to encourage women to go into science if they want to have kids – including some of my distinguished senior colleagues. This article gives their misguided arguments more credence.

    And for that matter, talk of equal opportunities is window dressing? I think we need more of that particular window dressing.

  36. #36 There are too many scientists.
    October 27, 2008

    There are WAY more people getting Ph.D’s in science than there are jobs for them-both in the US and in Europe. Somehow, the need to have a scientifically literate general population (something that the US has always been sorely lacking) is translated into the need for more research scientists. I think scientifically talented people-both men AND women- should be discouraged from getting Ph.D’s in science, and instead be encouraged to enter other careers that make use of their scientific skills. In this country there is a dire shortage of science teachers- hell, there is even a shortage of physicians. Meanwhile, there is such a glut of basic science Ph.D’s that most have no hope of finding a job that requires said Ph.D. If women are more succesfully dissuaded than men from going into science- then so be it. As for those who love science enough to die for it–of which there are more than jobs anyways–let them suffer the consequences. Maybe when there aren’t enough of them the situation will be better for everyone.

  37. #37 neurowoman
    October 27, 2008

    agree with poster Kathryn – some experiments require >8hr days. Mine sure do. I thought by this point in my career I’d have the flexibility of being the ‘boss’! Hand off the day to day, long hours grind to my students/postdocs, but here I am, still in the lab, my daughter’s bedtime slipping by. Multi-year dual career job searches, and I can’t score a position that would allow me greater flexibility. It’s getting pretty old, and I’m therefore considering other career options…

  38. #38 JaneDoh
    October 27, 2008

    This has been a really interesting discussion, although we’ve all veered away from the original post. The question I still have is this one (about work/life balance)–is it academic science, or is it the culture around high powered careers?

    Honestly, trying to be a PI and run your own lab is going for the prime position in a whole universe of science careers. Comparable positions in other careers are things like CEO, partner in a law firm (or accounting or consulting firm), attending at a hospital/partner in a major medical practice, professional musician, artist, or athlete, and the like. Would work life/balance really be easier in these other careers? Looking at my lawyer/doctor/business friends, I would have to say no. And the margin in a dual career household is always very tight, even if those careers aren’t research.

    Women in science DO have issues related to career progression, promotion, and even getting hired. But I don’t think it would be any easier to work less than 10-12 hours a day as a young lawyer, MBA, or doctor, male or female. Academia can’t be removed from the surrounding work culture. This is not a problem we can fix just for PIs.

    There are plenty of science careers that don’t demand these crazy hours. I have friends who are forensic chemists, run clinical trials, run user facilities (usually with the bonus of 30-50% time to work on their own projects) and who work in government positions that are still scientists, but work 9-5 most of the time. The insane work/life balance many of us are trying is not mandatory to stay in science, or even in research. Just to be at the top.

  39. #39 bored mom
    October 27, 2008

    Actually, doctor works well. I’ve met many MD mothers who have stepped down to a part time schedule and are happy with it. These days I often wish I’d gone to med school instead of grad school. I also know a lawyer and a several business types who carved out a reduced-time niche. The lawyer is not going to be partner in a law firm but she’s happy and doing well. But those people all have skills that are generally recognized as useful and needed by someone.

    The problem is that we end up fairly useless outside the narrow range of things we’re extremely good at, and there’s not so much of a niche for many of us. There are science careers that do not require workweeks above 40 hrs. But I have yet to find one that justifies uprooting a 4 person family, and I have not found anything locally.

  40. #40 Alex
    October 27, 2008

    +1 what JaneDoh said.

    Yes, there are doctors who work lighter hours, but they are not gunning to become a senior partner in a large practice, a position of prestige roughly comparable to PI at a large research university. There are people in all sorts of business careers with manageable schedules, but they are not seeking to become senior managers in their firms.

    Of course, these reduced-hour jobs in other fields can still pay pretty well, while part-time techs or adjunct professors tend not to make as much. Part of it is that there are too many Ph.D.’s chasing too few university jobs. But once you go beyond academia, and look at industry, there are a lot of people who build the right skill set and then go into consulting. They might not make as much as a part-time physician, but they have flexible hours and probably make more than your typical adjunct professor.

  41. #41 Carrie
    October 28, 2008

    JaneDoh wrote: The insane work/life balance many of us are trying is not mandatory to stay in science, or even in research. Just to be at the top. One problem with ‘science’ is this inane expectation that we all have to be the best. We have to be making discoveries ahead of our colleages and be the expert in our fields in order to ‘do a good job’. I left the academic pipeline 7 years ago and have been quite happy at my 50 hour a week industry job. I am even ‘in management’, so I’m somewhat driven. :-). But I’ve realized I don’t have to be ‘the best’ to be successful. Or a good scientist.

    Still doesn’t help when you have a big presentation and one of the kids are sick and it’s your turn to stay home with them!

  42. #42 cynical
    October 28, 2008

    “We have to be making discoveries ahead of our colleages and be the expert in our fields in order to ‘do a good job’.”

    Umm…isn’t that the whole POINT of science? To discover things hitherto unknown, despite the best efforts of the brilliant minds of previous generations.

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