Let’s hear more from the women who leave academia (Part 2)

After the publication of my previous post, I received an email from Dr Sian Grigg, who decided to leave academia following the completion of her PhD. Read on below to hear her story.

Dear Kaitlin

Thanks for thinking of us who did not continue! I have often thought about this question and still wonder, after 15 years, whether I should have tried harder to pursue a career in academia. And whether I might now try to find a way back in.

I started my PhD on 1 April 2000 and my first child was born on 6 April 2000. 2nd child April 2002. Finished PhD Nov 2005. Moved countries and bought a small hotel with my husband in 2003. At the end of 5 1/2 years of probably too much of everything I think I was just exhausted. And had to decide whether to apply for post-docs or not. The thought of submitting papers from my PhD, moving my family and proving myself in a new position made me wonder about the sanity of it all. Could I rely on my husband to do what needed to be done at home? Could the four of us survive on a post-doc salary? What would my husband do with himself? He’d gone from being a manager at IBM jetting back and forth between Japan and Australia to small hotel owner in the French Pyrenees (where he is from), and I was really uncertain about pushing him to move and whether it would all explode.

And then once you hesitate – it’s all over. I started picking up more slack in the hotel and gave him some space to follow a project of his own. Then you get involved in the day to day of all that and you spend less time working on papers and pushing forward any career opportunities. We had his family around to help with child minding. We lived (and still do) in a really lovely area. Basically the ingredients of a relatively balanced family life were in place.

Academia is such a competitive world – I often compare it to professional sport or the performing arts. It’s hard to make it and you really need to dedicate yourself to it in order to. It isn’t enough to just be good at it because supply greatly outstrips demand. So why would anyone hire you if you are not willing to work crazy hours and push other aspects of your life aside. If I was a man I would have made another decision? I suspect yes. Men are better at being sure what they are doing is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING! The only way! That they will save the world! I had trouble convincing myself that this was truly the case, and that my sacrifice of sane family life would be worth it.

My 18 yr old has just flown off to Australia to start university and my husband is in his second mandate as mayor of our town and various other political functions. I have expanded our hotel business with a tour operator (treks and other things in the Pyrenees) and have worked to continually green our operations. I now think mainly about sustainable tourism projects and how to be more effective in that space. I love running a small business for the freedom it provides. No-one to answer to but myself, generally. As much holiday as I feel like, generally. I wonder whether I would have managed the whole bureaucratic nature of being a scientist in a large institution. I never doubted my ability to do good science but am not sure I would have survived the grant applications and paperwork. I guess you just apply yourself to the task, like everything else.

Most of all I wonder how our family would have survived the constant moving from one post doc to another and how my husband would have managed being dragged around. I can see another life where I was single from age 20-30 and became a scientist. I struggle to really see how it could have worked out with husband and kids in tow. I have no doubt it is also horrid for men who are early career scientists with small children. But the fact is simply that the wives of these men often make it work, messy though it might be. Did I lack faith in my husband that he could do the same? Did I cede when I should have fought? I’m not sure at all. Both are possibilities.

Meanwhile I’ve remained endlessly interested in climate science, economics and the fight for the environment in general. I’ve had time to read widely and often find my science friends simply don’t have time for this. I’ve developed different skills. I lobby my politician husband and influence where I can!

I’m not sure where to from now – now that I am less restricted by both family and to some extent money. Doing a PhD was definitely one of the highlights of my life and has informed it hugely.

I guess, like everything, the issue ends up being diversity. So many women step out of the game – in big business I think there is a huge loss of women who often set up their own business’ or pursue other paths once they have children simply so they have more flexibility and more control over their lives. While this may be the “best” choice for these women and lead to fulfilling lives for them and their families, it may mean that the areas they left are hollowed out and lack diversity of experience and views. This has been flagged in corporate boardrooms. I am not sure whether there is a similar issue in academia.

Well done for fighting your way in the system. If you ever want a climate friendly holiday you can find us at www.hotel-luz.com or www.pyrenees-mountains.com.

Sian Grigg


2 thoughts on “Let’s hear more from the women who leave academia (Part 2)

  1. Wow interesting and a great letter. So I went back to university not long after I turned 50. It’s wasn’t ideal and I wonder (a bit enviously sometimes) about what I could have done if I had the opportunity earlier in my life to study more. But, I loved it even though I worried about being an older student and had a lot of similar concerns to those described by Sian

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