wife, mother, ph.d. student, hot stuff.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

the weaker sex...

Looks like Larry Summers is finally resigning. I can't say I'm surprised. He sure made a mess of things PR wise. But whether you think he was right or he was wrong, one very good thing has come out of this situation; the academic community is working even harder to make things better for women in science.

Given that I've been actively working towards going to grad school for more than a year, and that I am 26, I've given a lot of thought to the whole "women in science" issue. It is my impression that most incoming grad students are no more than a year or two out of college, and not married. Therefore, having been out of college for 5 years, out of grad school for 3, and married for almost 3, my focus is a bit different from the typical incoming grad student. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe that is part of the problem.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but by far the majority of science students finish their ph.d. in their late 20's. By then, the biological clock is ticking pretty strongly (forgive the cliche). Additionally, one becomes more aware of any sexual bias in the field, since graduate studies revolve around the lab instead of in classes. Combine those two factors, and the harsh road that leads to tenure, and it's no wonder that women like Amber Post are opting to turn away from academia. Why should we subject ourselves to being ignored by our peers because of our sex, to wrangling for maternity leave and feeling societal pressure to be primary caretakers of our children, in addition to the normal grind of being in academia? It's much simpler to opt out. Even my own mother, who has always wanted me to succeed in science, told me last year that "one ph.d. in a family is good enough" and advised me to take the easy route.

I'm not saying that a woman in her young 20's doesn't realize such a dilemma exists. But I don't think one can really comprehend it until one has reached the point where one can actually start planning for a family. Which I have. Don't get me wrong; I'm not implying that I am some font of wisdom. It's just that there are some things you can't comprehend till it happens. A couple I know lost their child halfway through pregnancy. I certainly feel some amount of empathy for them; I want to have a family, and I can imagine what a horrible blow this must be. But I dare not say I KNOW how they feel.

So I imagine that the majority of women start their ph.d.'s without really thinking hard about the issue until they're almost done. By then, it's too late; they're bitter about being treated differently, they're unused to thinking about the family vs career dilemma which till then was only a phantom of the future, and there isn't a sufficient setup to accomodate women starting families and careers simultaneously. And so most women finish their ph.d's, and leave.

Unlike other science grad students in their late 20's, I *haven't* started my ph.d. yet. And so coupled with the disadvantages (being limited to certain cities because of Robin's job possibilities, having to readjust to student life), is the advantage of some additional foresight. We know we want to start a family before I'm 30. We know we want to find a community that is friendly towards people like us. I know to be keeping an eye out for universities that have safety nets for its women grad students, which are cognizant of the choices we have to be making.

I couldn't help but notice that Amber Post is at Princeton... I have heard that the environment at Princeton can be old-school, misogynistic. Would she have chosen to attend if she'd started at age 25? I'm not saying that all women who want to go into science should wait till they are older to start their degrees. However, I think that this situation does behoove those who ARE older, those who are already in academic positions, to think a bit more about where they choose to work, such that we can begin to foster better communities for women in science. In that manner, places which aren't as friendly are either forced to change, or fade away.


Jonathan Foley said...

The most interesting grad students that I have worked with are those students who have taken time off after undergrad. They have had the chance to sample the 'real' world and are sure that they are making the right choice in pursuiting a PhD. Women now constitute the majority at the undergrad level (though still underrepresented in engineering and the physical sciences), wont't this filter through to the graduate level as time goes on?

Have you heard back from Harvard Systems Biology....even though I know that I must be rejected (no interview) I have received no letter.

wedge said...

It is my understanding that at this point in time, the ratio of female:male in science doing graduate work is not that much less than the ratio in undergrad. The steep dropoff occurs after the ph.d... somehow, the ratio isn't "filtering" through to academia.

No word from Systems Bio for me yet either.

Cheryl said...

Hello! I'm amused that of all the times to check your blog, I do so now...1) these thoughts are in my mind as well and I've changed my career path in somewhat of a response and 2) working for a (female scientist) Harvard Overseer, the continuing Summers "situation" has been our water cooler topic for months.

Back to the first topic: it's even worse in medicine, from what I can see - not necessarily the ratio, but the "career v. family" aspects...your 20s are when you are going through the hell of nights on call, residencies and fellowships...forget starting a fmaily, as you'll be lucky to make it through the training with your marriage intact. I'm not at all ashamed to say that my time off from school has given me a different perspective on what's important to me, and while I still definitely want a career, family is up there as well. I'll never care enough about my career to miss piano recitals or student plays and wouldn't marry anyone who thought differently...this was not at all what I thought coming out of college, uncertain though I was about what direction I was ultimately going to take.

I'm going to take the plunge this summer and apply to school - specifically, dental school. There is a whole long and lovely story about why dentistry is such a good fit for me - but really, let's face it - dentists don't have grueling nights on call. I'll be able to have a profession I enjoy and the freedom to enjoy life on top of it - no shame in me on that count as a 27 year old, but there would have been had I declared those sentiments at 22. Hoepfully, I'm not turning my back on years of womens' rights progress by saying so...

Take care and good luck with your applications!


wedge said...


Hey! Good to hear from you!

I've certainly heard about the craziness that is med school/residency/etc. but
I know very little about the female:male ration in medicine. How much does it shift from first year of med school to residency to independently practicing medicine?

Your statement that "I'll be able to have a profession I enjoy and the freedom to enjoy life on top of it - no shame in me on that count as a 27 year old, but there would have been had I declared those sentiments at 22" rather intrigued me. I felt that way (and knew Robin felt that way) by the end of our time at Caltech... we both agreed that neither of us wanted to go the academic route because we wanted what Robin had growing up. Both his parents were home by dinner time every night, and they were extremely involved in their kids' lives. It seemed obvious at the time that any academic or consultant at McKinsey would not have time for family.

5 years later, I still feel that way, but I realize it's not so black and white. Ultimately it's still about choice. Today, women are empowered to choose to work or stay home with their kids, choose to keep their maiden name or not. We can't forget that we can choose to let our jobs take over our lives, or choose to push it into its own corner. For instance, my own advisor just had his third kid this summer. He is not slacking in running his lab (hell, I'm still here) and anyone who talks to him knows that he is very involved in his childrens' lives. If he can do it, well I'll be damned if I can't give it a try.

adrianne said...

(Hi Wedge! Let me know how the grad school decision works out!)

It isn't all roses and hearts in the working world either. I have heard many men say, "Well she just ruined her career." because she chose to work 3 days a week instead of 5.

I am very lucky to have found a company that is open to women (or men, for that matter) adjusting thier schedules to be with their family. However, there is still a bit of "not quite animosity, but something else," toward any woman that wants to start a family before she is 30. Because you know, you're not a real engineer until then. Hopefully that will change, too. ;)

But you're right, choosing to go back to grad school at this point in your life is a difficult decision. I wish you luck, but you already know that. :)