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Why women (and everybody else) leave academia

May 30, 2013

Why women (and everybody else) leave academia

Today’s link is a Guardian piece discussing a study focused on female chemistry PhD students, which expresses alarm at the fact that only 12% of female students plan to remain in academia.  There are two aspects to this article that I believe are important to address:

– Academia is a more hostile environment for women than for men.  This is absolutely true, and things like raising a family are incredibly difficult when pursuing the publish-or-perish rat race.  There are a handful of grants and fellowships focused toward female scientists, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.  The underlying problem is far more systemic and the effort is too little, too late.  The culture needs to be adjusted at a core level to be more appealing to ALL scientists who would make awesome teachers and researchers, instead of marginalizing a specific group.

– The article perpetuates the idea that students leaving academia is a bad thing.  This has to stop!  A typical tenure-track position receives in excess of several hundred applicants.  A successful professor will graduate dozens of PhD students in his or her career, producing far more students than there are available academic jobs.  A large percentage of students need to leave academia, solely due to the massive imbalance in supply vs demand.  The real crime here is not that students intend to leave academia – it’s that people look down on them for wanting to do so.  As long as people are willing to work a decade of postdocs, or suffer through low-paid, low-prestige, long-hours adjunct teaching positions for years, the Universities have very little motivation to do anything to make academic jobs more appealing.  And why should they?  They still get hundreds of applicants, even with the poor chances, lousy work-life balance, and insane application process that requires potentially weeks worth of work writing teaching statements and research plans – only to never even hear so much as “thank you for submitting your application” from most departments.

The problem here isn’t that a lot of students want to leave academia.  It’s that more of them don’t realize that they should.

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