X-Gal Meg Murray hasn’t completely leaked out of the pipeline yet. She’s taken a lectureship instead of a tenure-track position, and she writes this in a column titled Too Few Choices:
Defining success is a tricky thing. Would I consider myself successful if I had moved my family across the country for my career, making my husband miserable and decreasing our standard of living? We now have a high quality of life (income aside) in a location where our kids are happy and where my husband (who provides the bulk of our income) has limitless career opportunities.
Is that success? I don’t know. I do know that I need to find a new definition of success, one that fits the opportunities available to me.
Meg’s choices are constrained by her concern for her family’s well-being and the relative lack of opportunities available to her in academic science. Meg says of herself
You see, I am a scientist. I have been a scientist since I started collecting butterfly eggs at the age of 4. It is not what I do; it is who I am.
Can Meg still be a scientist – still be who she is – if she has to leave academia?
I was at one time a postdoc in a lab with three other bright, ambitious, creative, talented women postdocs. Three of us had no children; the fourth’s children were all grown and long gone from home. None of us had a two-body problem; indeed one woman’s partner worked in the same lab. Yet, not one of the four of us went on to become professors, at research universities or any other kind of educational institution. All of us had the talent and ability to do so, but all of us chose to leave research. We all left while our research programs were yielding interesting results.
Why? The most immediate and pressing driver was that we worked in an extremely dysfunctional and exploitative lab. At one point the lab had to undergo mediation, and the mediator declared a failure – the lab couldn’t be helped. It was that bad. No one actively mentored any of us, talked with us about our future career paths, advised us how to position ourselves for academic careers. And each of us had suffered a fair number of gender-based discriminatory incidents ranging from small annoying daily interactions to egregious career-damaging offenses. We hoped the atmosphere for women might be better outside academia.
But it would be wrong to look just at the conditions in that lab as an explanation of why we did not become professors. In each case, an accumulation of small events throughout a career – some of which were responsible for landing us in this dysfunctional, dead-end lab – shaped the outcome. I have told some of the particulars of my story in two different places, in an essay in She’s Such a Geek! and another in Women in Science: Meeting Career Challenges. In my case, the dysfunctional, abusive, discriminatory lab environment was just the last straw. I might have been “saved” for academic science had I been in a different sort of lab, but all the events of my past conspired to ensure that I did not land in a place that was good for me.
You can say we actively chose to leave the academic path, and some of us never gave it a backward glance. We chose, but it was a choice with a lot of push behind it. And we were all aware of how we were viewed by those who stayed on the path – those who were still in the pipeline. We had leaked out through our own fault. That is, there was nothing wrong with science – the problem was with us. If we had been good enough to become professors, we would have done so. If we had been good enough to become professors, we would never have wanted to do anything else. So leaving was evidence of our incompetence.
Maybe so, but leaving academia was marked by an increase in choices: what kind of work to do, who to work for, where to live, which path to take in the career. There was no longer one model for success; success was whatever we defined for ourselves, whatever we set out to make of our lives. For me, leaving academia meant feeling giddily untethered, almost adrift, for awhile. Inside academia, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do and where I was supposed to end up. Outside academia, there was no path except the one I would create. It was liberating and frightening. How would I know when I had become sufficiently impressive?!?!?
I lost touch with one of the women from my lab, but of the other two, one is a highly paid top clinical research manager for a large pharmaceutical company in Boston; the other plans and oversees clinical trials for diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. Her non-academic career enabled her to move back to Europe to be near her family. Both of them own their own house and travel extensively, for work and for pleasure. As for myself, I’ve had a series of jobs that I’ve loved ever since leaving the professor-track, including a stint back in academia as an administrator. Leaving academia led to my last job, which came with disability insurance, which allows me and my husband to make our house payments and pay our bills even though I cannot work now.
In industry, our contributions have been valued as team members. We’ve been given management training and promoted. We’ve gotten really nice salary increases and stock options, and had our moving expenses paid. And we’ve done interesting and challenging work that draws on a wide range of our skills and abilities. We are not research professors, but a research professor is not the only thing that a scientist can be.
X-Gal Jana Kincaid writes, in Still A Scientist:
We X-Gals like to say that being a scientist is who we are. But does that change with our job title? Our employment status? Our “track”?
For me, I haven’t so much modified my definition of success as expanded my definitions of scientist, mentor, and teacher. I would argue that there are alternative careers to the tenure track that still allow us to be scientists and are truly aligned with the fields we love and with who we are. We just have to open our minds to those careers.
I want to say, yes indeedy Jana! Are there really still lots of people out there who think that only tenure-track people are scientists? What an impoverished view of the world. Have they not heard – there’s a whole world outside the university???? But this anxiety about identity is real. We form our identity around what we do very, very strongly. And if we’ve had it in our minds that we must become a research professor, then having that taken away from us is not just a career disappointment, it’s something that forces us to rethink our whole identity. If I am going to take on a different career that is perceived as lower status – am I going to become a lower sort of person? This status-consciousness is so intense in academia – witness Meg Murray’s tale of the assistant professor who won’t acknowledge her existence now that she knows Meg is “just” a lecturer.
Women who leak out of the academic pipeline should be able to feel comfortable with the choices they make, to feel happy about the careers they craft for themselves. Men leave academia, too, and there are lots of good reasons to say no to an academic career and yes to something else. The problem is that, for women, there are so many additional bad reasons for saying no to an academic career.