Thus Spake Zuska

Life as a Leak, Part 2

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.


  1. #1 ilikeathechemicals
    March 23, 2007

    Anyone else ever notice the similarity between academic science, esp certain fields, and being a part of a cult? It’s eerie, and it explains a lot.

  2. #2 Bill
    March 24, 2007

    Just to sound a contrary note, I’m wary of expanding definitions. If you’re not doing research, are you a scientist? I think I would say no. It’s not a genetic marker or (pace Myers, Briggs and co.) a personality type, it’s a job description. There’s a semantic problem with shortening “I work as a scientist” to “I am a scientist”, and it goes beyond semantics: as ‘ilikeathechemicals’ (me too, brother or sister, me too) observes, there’s something creepy and cult-like about the worldview behind “I am a scientist”.

    When Dr Kincaid wants to say she is “still a scientist”, it seems to me (and this may well be more about me than Dr Kincaid!) that she has yet to shake off the effects of the cult. If what she’s doing for a living is teaching, she’s a teacher by trade. Why cling to this identification of yourself with your job, even after you no longer do that job? Who she is, is a much larger question, and conflating the two is not healthy.

    The primary component of Cult of Science indoctrination is the idea that not being a scientist means being a failure; that only science is worth doing, all other careers are somehow “lesser” occupations. This, I think, is the proper target: rather than claiming that a lecturer or clinical trial manager or whatever IS a scientist, we need to be rid of the insidious idea that being a scientist (by trade) is better than being any of those other things (by trade). And, as my parentheses there indicate, we also need to be rid of the idea that one IS what one DOES in return for a salary.

    I should make clear my own biases and indoctrinations: I’m a postdoc, and have never held a serious job that wasn’t research. I’m not doing very well in academia and am considering other options. Part of me, despite the three preceding paragraphs, reacts to the idea of leaving research as though it were an admission of defeat and failure. It’s very hard to shake this reaction, which has perhaps kept me at the bench some years beyond the point at which I should have quit. My situation is complicated, though, by the fact that I like and respect my current boss, and do find the work in my current lab very interesting. So take anything I say on this topic with an appropriately large grain of salt.

  3. #3 Jackie
    March 24, 2007

    You define who are you. If you say you’re a scientist, you’re a scientist, especially if you have the Ph.D. at the end of your name. No one can take that away from you.

  4. #4 Bill
    March 24, 2007

    If you say you’re a scientist, you’re a scientist

    Nonsense. The Discovery Institute is full of people who say they are scientists; some of them have PhDs.

  5. #5 Bill
    March 24, 2007

    Oops, sorry Jackie, I thought I deleted that — I retract “nonsense”, and apologize.

    I’m in a foul mood this morning and my first response was ridiculously combative. I do disagree with you, but you’re not talking nonsense.

  6. #6 Jackie
    March 24, 2007

    All you’re saying is that you don’t agree with someone else’s perogative to define who they are themselves. I believe in free will, not institutions or labels or people who think they can tell other people who they are or are not.

  7. #7 Bill
    March 24, 2007

    All you’re saying is that you don’t agree with someone else’s perogative to define who they are themselves.

    Anyone can say they are a scientist, or lawyer, or surgeon, or whatever. For the statement to have meaning clearly requires more than assertion, or I could hang out a shingle to practice medicine or law today.

    I’m saying that who a person is is a much larger question that what they do for a living, and that it’s probably not a good idea to identify so completely with a job that “I am a scientist” becomes a sufficient answer to “who are you?”.

  8. #8 Natalie
    March 25, 2007

    This set of articles makes me realize what a different climate my graduate program (a very applied Fisheries and Wildlife program) had where people were expected to go into government work. Most of the faculty there were funded by the government, and a fair number of the faculty were hardly teachers since they taught one class a year. It was more of a surprise if you did go into teaching (like my husband and eventually myself did). But, it goes to show that there are certain “expectations” in every lab that you may or may not live up to. The trick is to find a program that encourages what you want to do.

  9. #9 ilikeathechemicals
    March 26, 2007

    well said, bill. you saw what i meant. it’s not enough to be a scientist. one must be a Scientist… one must feel and participate in the privilege, the elitism, and the resulting judgements, to really be part of the group. we are the makers and discoverers of worlds… and whoever dares leave us is outcast and shunned.
    who would want to leave, after all?
    we either leave free of heart after a struggle, or broken.

  10. #10 Carrie
    March 26, 2007

    Bill wrote I’m saying that who a person is is a much larger question that what they do for a living, and that it’s probably not a good idea to identify so completely with a job that “I am a scientist” becomes a sufficient answer to “who are you?”. However, Bill, I think that for most of us, being a ‘scientist’ IS part and parcel of who we are. I KNOW I am a scientist — I approach my childrearing and exercise and recreation activities with the ‘mind of a scientist’. It is a large part of who I am. It’s all part of research — figuring out how the world works. And therefore, yes, I do identify my work as scientific work, even though I am NOT doing research in an academic or government lab. I am doing applied research for a product to be supplied — not research to be published in a journal. But we are still asking and answering questions — which is what science is all about.

    But yup, I left academia 5 years ago and believe, I still have feelings of failure on a regular basis.

  11. #11 Lab Cat
    March 29, 2007


    I think saying that you are only a scientist if you work in a research lab in academia or government is far too narrow a definition. What about science teachers in High School?

    Even if it means the Discovery Institute can claim to have working scientists, we need to keep the definition as broad as possible.

    Even when/if I leave academia, whatever I do, you can’t take the scientist out of me.

    Unfortunately, if Bill’s definition is considered to be correct, science is turning into a cult. Scary.

    These posts are very helpful. Just what I needed along with some positive thinking – I am a success. I will not be broken! Thanks.

  12. #12 etbnc
    March 29, 2007

    Well, I’m pretty sure the words “cult” and “culture” have the same roots. It seems to me that science has already turned into a culture.

    I find it helpful to think in terms of participation in the culture of science. Unfortunately it can be difficult to get participants in any culture to pay attention to the operation of their culture. The culture of science seems to be especially reluctant to examine its own function. I suspect that science’s emphasis on observing but not partipating makes it easier for partipants to look only outward and to avoid looking inward. But that’s an unproven hypothesis…

    Another hypothesis is that the culture of science might be more effective at some of its espoused goals, such as influencing non-science cultures, if more participants in the culture of science paid more attention to their culture’s function — and dysfunction. That’s one reason I find value in Zuska’s attempts to focus attention on the operation of the culture of science. And that’s why I repeatedly comment about culture ’round these parts: I think there’s leverage to be gained by understanding and applying the mechanisms of culture to enact change.


  13. #13 Bill
    March 29, 2007

    What about science teachers in High School?

    They’re teachers. Why is that a bad thing — why do they have to be scientists as well, or instead?

    we need to keep the definition as broad as possible.


    There is considerable utility in metaphors like “science is a social construct” and “science is a worldview” and so on, but those are metaphors not descriptions. Science is, at bottom, a process of acquiring reliable information about the world of sense-perception. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing science; and if your primary task-in-return-for-which-you-get-paid is not science, you’re not a scientist. Why is this so controversial?

    if Bill’s definition is considered to be correct, science is turning into a cult

    I don’t think my definition is anything but a job description and a refusal to engage in ill-considered wishful thinking. I simply don’t understand why teachers and clinical trial managers and engineers and other members of perfectly good professions want to be considered scientists. When and how did “scientist” acquire such cachet — and if it’s such a wonderful thing to be, why don’t I get paid more?

    As for a cult, it’s not “turning into” anything, it’s been there for a long time. Etbnc has it right, I think — rather than a cult, it’s a very insular culture with little capacity for self-examination.

  14. #14 Carrie
    March 29, 2007

    Bill wrote: and if your primary task-in-return-for-which-you-get-paid is not science, you’re not a scientist. Why is this so controversial?. Maybe that statement right there is so controversial because as many of us look back at strong contributors to science, several of those contributors were not scientists by occupation. Many were women who were constrained by societal norms to conduct science on the sly.

  15. #15 whoa
    March 29, 2007

    this is peripheral, but have you seen about how threats have shut down the “Creating Passionate Users” tech blog?

    the writer, a she, is very scared at this point.
    zuska et al, would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  16. #16 Nicole
    March 30, 2007

    I agree completely with what Bill is saying. Why this strong need to say you are a scientist, or that you approach things with the ‘mind of a scientist’? Sounds like people think approaching things with the ‘mind of a scientist’ is the only correct/worthy/rational way to approach life, and they want to be included in that group.

    If you are not currently working as a scientist, you are not a scientist. I assert that this is society’s majority opinion (although probably not on this blog?). Used to work as a scientist? Call yourself a former scientist. You can dissent and call yourself a scientist, and then when people find out you don’t actually work as a scientist, they will doubt more of what you say. But that’s your choice.

  17. #17 MissPrism
    March 30, 2007

    I don’t think you are what you’re paid for. If someone waits tables to pay the bills but is a trained and skilled artist who paints for the love of it, she can truthfully tell me she’s a painter.

    Or, to put it another way, Mendel was a scientist.

  18. #18 Ryan Vilim
    March 30, 2007

    I look at it this way, unless someone is paying you to do science, you aren’t a scientist, you have a hobby.

    If you (pretend to) do science and aren’t funded to do research in peer reviewed journals, there is a reason for that, its because your peers think your work is crap. I am being extremely blunt here because this is the reality of the situation.

    If I claim myself to be a lawyer because I attended law school (but did not pass the bar, or let my license expire), I am a liar. Equivalent situations for engineers and doctors exist. Just because laws don’t exist to prevent amateurs from claiming themselves to be scientists doesn’t make you any less of a liar if you claim yourself to be one when you are not.

    -A (non-funded) lecturer at a university is not a scientist
    -A person who writes a science column for a newspaper is not (necessarily) a scientist.
    -A person who left academia, or whatever funded research that they happened to be doing is no longer a scientist.
    -A person who takes a scientific view of the world is not a scientist

    Allow me to repeat my earlier assertion; unless someone is paying you to do science, you aren’t a scientist, you have a hobby.

    I should also add that I am not a scientist, I am a physics student. Only when I am paid to do physics (grad school or postdoc) will I become a scientist.

  19. #19 meg murray
    April 8, 2007

    I have really enjoyed reading all of these comments too. Ryan’s view of the scientist thing seems so clear cut! However, what if you are a lecturer, not (currently) funded or paid to do science, but doing/publishing/presenting new research? Would it be ok to call myself a scientist then? Or, since I am neither paid to do it, nor currently funded it makes me a liar to call myself a scientist? My point is, that self-definitions are tricky, and life doesn’t always fit into neat little boxes. I think that broadening our definitions of both self and success would be a good thing, then it wouldn’t be so devastating when life interferes. Meg

  20. #20 Zuska
    April 8, 2007

    Meg’s comment amply illustrates the problems with defining “scientist” as only those who are paid to do research. That’s a nice clean definition, but life doesn’t work out in nice clean ways. I know of a lab where one of the people being paid to carry out the actual research didn’t even have a degree in science – do we call that person a scientist? No, we call that kind of person a “technician”, because we are protecting the label “scientist” in our hierarchy. But if you want to insist that it’s just being paid to do research that makes you a scientist, then he’s a scientist. And yes, this person was actively involved in designing experiments, got his name on papers and all – but was still just called a technician. Life is messy indeed. Or should I say, life in the world of science is invested with politics? That should surprise no one. Deciding who gets to be called “scientist” is a very, very political issue.

  21. #21 Bill
    April 9, 2007

    if you want to insist that it’s just being paid to do research that makes you a scientist, then he’s a scientist

    Seems unproblematic to me. It’s the gatekeeping at the pieces-of-paper level that’s keeping this person from being seen as a scientist, not my more practical definition.

    Tangentially, I’ve never actually worked in a lab where a strong distinction was made between technicians and “real scientists”, but then I wouldn’t join such a lab if I knew about it ahead of time. I have met individuals who felt that their formal qualifications put them on some kind of superhuman plane where they didn’t have to treat the “help” with courtesy, but, well, there are assholes everywhere.

  22. #22 SuzyQueue
    April 9, 2007

    The tenet of society to identify a person by their occupation adds a level of differentiation to the use of ‘scientist’ to describe someone. Different cultures place various levels of importance to different occupations. Some cultures view the occupation of teacher with high regard and others do not. Many people view being a lawyer or doctor as the highest occupation while others may view a scientist as such. The general public does not understand what scientists and engineers do. They typically view technology as something to do with the internet. We learned individuals who study science and engineering have a different view from the general public but still one blinded by our individual discipline and indoctrination into that discipline’s culture.

    Being a teacher is highly valued where I grew up and by my immediate family. Since I am employed by a university, I may be considered a teacher, although it really depends on who is identifying me. I have credentials in both science and engineering. I am more comfortable being identified as a scientist than an engineer but am typically called an engineer. I do have credentials for both and, yes, I am currently paid to do both, of course you may want to get picky on the pay part as my standard contract is noted as a teaching contract. So what am I? Do you need more information? I publish papers in peer-reviewed journals – so am I a scientist? Some of those journals are engineering journals – so am I an engineer? Do I have any current funding? No. So did I cease being a scientist when my funding ended? What if I get funding again in the next cycle, do I get to be a scientist again? Did I leak out of science or a particular field of science or am I still part of the pipeline flow? The narrow definitions offered don’t help identify what I am.

    There are several opinions in the comments above on what a scientist isn’t (a teacher for example) but not what a scientist is. A scientist, by definition, is one skilled in or devoted to science. There is no mention of getting paid or whether scientists are white, yellow, red, brown, male, female, Asian, African, English, or Russian. Many of the ‘fathers’ of the fields we currently recognize as science were not paid. They were the idle rich whose position, power, and family influence allowed them to study nature and develop scientific laws and theorems. For example, Darcy developed many fluid flow relationships while relaxing with a bottle a wine watching water fountains. Nice job to have! Isaac Newton supposedly got to sit and watch apples fall from a tree. There was some mention of his mother wanting him to develop an interest in farming but not the back-breaking farming that I know of. Neither of these individuals had to really work for a living with their hands and backs. They had the time not taken up by the cumbersome task of providing for their families to study the world around them. Homer Hickum, Jr. studied rocket propulsion systems. He was paid at that time to work in a coal mine. So is he not a scientist? Did his research not qualify as science? Plant and animal breeders use genetics and scientific based experimental breeding programs to improve stock. Since these breeders are paid (or not paid) as farmers and ranchers, are they not scientists? Mathematicians who studied Fibonacci sequences for years weren’t paid to research them because the economic importance of their study didn’t exist yet. Now Fibonacci sequences are used extensively in computer security. So, are those mathematicians not scientists since their studies were not financed at the time?

    In various bibliographies of important science figures, there isn’t a differentiation between funded and unfunded positions. There are differentiations between studies they undertook, some unpublished, not paid positions. If paid positions were important, there should have been a note on how much each position paid and the research budget each commanded since the amount of money should then translate to the person’s importance as a scientist. The positions, whether where they studied or were employed, are considered to be of lesser importance than what they did. Some of what they did was not known at the time since they did not publish it before they died.

    Why does it matter if we are PAID? Is science only for the well connected and well off? Do we only reward a narrow group of rich and powerful (by socioeconomic class position) individuals with the hallowed occupation “scientist?” Using this same analogy, the only true parents are nannies. It doesn’t matter that you had the child, you aren’t paid to raise it so you aren’t a ‘parent.’ I could be paid by an oil company as a scientist to research ethanol as a fuel source as long as all my publications say how bad ethanol is. In this case, I would be considered an unethical scientist but still a scientist.

    Science itself is constantly under assault from those within it trying to show that ‘their’ science is better than other branches of science. We have hard sciences and soft sciences and applied sciences and pure sciences and the list goes on. Is chemistry better than physics? Is high energy particle physics better than astronomy? Is computer science the offspring of mathematics or engineering?

    There is more to science than being paid to do it and there is more to being a scientist than being paid. If we are only what we are paid to do, we are truly becoming a poor society. As far as what I am, I am what I am and that is a SCIENTIST.

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