When it comes to STEM PhD holders, approximately 60% of all individuals end up in non-academic positions.When it comes to White women, Black men and women, and Hispanic men and women, it is often a more even split between academic and non-academic careers. However, these groups, and the women in particular, report holding more non-academic positions with managerial and service-based focus than research-based focus. Most interestingly, White women, Black men and women, and Hispanic men and women are much more likely to have left STEM fields entirely if they are holding a non-academic position. After looking into some of the primary reasons a PhD holder may choose to leave academia, we are going to examine specifically why women and POC are more likely to leave academia.
In our first post about leaving academia, we looked into the culture of academia. The “leaky pipeline” – women and POC being disproportionately represented in terms of higher education – is a misrepresentation of the issue. Women and POC, for the most part, earn degrees at approximately the same rate of their prevalence in the population, at least in the US. However the cultural lack of support makes it difficult for these populations to remain in the field. In light of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, it is becoming increasingly evident to non-oppressed people (we hope) that women and POC face daily harassment and prejudgement of their character. These attitudes, unfortunately, carry over into academia, and without active prevention they can easily wear down the resolve of even the most resilient individual. An argument to this may be that some of the greatest women scientists say they never experienced these attitudes or were never brought down by negative voices. More than likely, these women survived academia because they were lucky enough to have environments that were better than the norm or that they were unaware of the biases held by their peers. Women and POC are driven out of academia and research positions in the same way they are driven out of every other industry largely ruled by White men.
In terms of work-life balance, women in particular can face difficulties with managing a household and pursuing a career. In a household with a mother, father, and their child(ren) where the mother and father are both employed full-time, the mothers are responsible for more of the time- and energy-consuming duties, like planning schedules and taking care of the children when sick. In male-female couples, women are still doing the majority of housework as well. In truth, this is still all work for women. Finding time to enjoy their hobbies or friends can be even more difficult because their labor and attention is incessantly called elsewhere. With the demands and sometimes seemingly endless hours of academia, such a career can be infeasible and even damaging to their emotional and mental well-being. For women of color, these burdens are only increased and less manageable, on top of the fact that many women of color report feelings of “imposter syndrome” and in attempt ameliorate these they often work longer/harder hours.
Academia’s ivory tower is not immune to the culture of our society that presents obstacles to and harms women and POC. As with our society as a whole, it will take the actions of the individuals with position and power to shift the dynamic in favor of equality, to raise the voices of the oppressed. As women and POC leave not only academia but STEM to find environments where they feel heard and uplifted, the furtherance of science and exploration is undoubtedly stymied. Academia is not the only place for a researcher to make a career, but there is certainly change that can come that will encourage more of us to stay.
Check out these sources for facts and figures on women, POC, and LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM used to inform this post:
Household Labor of Couples – behind a paywall but several news articles were written summarizing the data
Thank you for joining us on the journey of why your beloved PhD might leave academia. If you are not pursuing a PhD, we hope this series has enlightened to a few of the struggles (outside of failed experiments) that we may face. If you are pursuing a PhD, hopefully you have felt heard and sympathized with in this stressful time. It is important to note that not all academics are bad and a career in academia is not always overwhelmingly torturous. All we ask is that we aren’t judged if, when asked what we want to do with our PhD, our answer is more confusing than an explanation of our work.