Let’s hear more from the women who leave academia.

“On International Women’s Day”, I wrote on 8 March, “why don’t we instead highlight women who left the workforce due to structural barriers? The current approach is a bit “let’s celebrate the women who navigated this broken system to distract from the fact that it’s broken”.”

So far, I have been one of the women who is “celebrated” on days like this, with social media campaigns showcasing the work of women in science. I am happy to do so, as I know first-hand how important it is to have role models who look like you when you’re trying to succeed in science. If I can convince a young researcher that science is no longer a man’s world – and I truly believe the tide is turning – I will take part in as many hashtags as it takes.

But, this does not mean there are no problems. Building a science career is incredibly competitive these days, and that competition tends to disproportionately filter out underrepresented groups. It’s becoming more and more true that the only way to have a stable job in academia is to be an absolute research superstar, with a heavy dose of luck, and a lot of time to spend writing proposals which are usually rejected. I know so many women who are just not interested in playing this game, and I sympathise with them. I am playing the game for now, but I do not have infinite patience.

In science, we usually only hear from the small number of people who rise to the top, a form of “survivorship bias”. Then we sit back and wonder why almost all of those people are men. If we truly want to understand what is causing women to leave academia, we need to ask the women who have left, not the women who remain.

Shortly after International Women’s Day, I received an email from an anonymous woman in the UK who decided to leave academia after gaining her PhD. She wanted to share her story publicly, and I wanted to help her do that. Please read on below to find out what she has to say.

I always thought that I would be an academic, because I am so passionate about my topic. However, when I started job hunting after my PhD, I realised that staying in academia was not feasible, and not what I wanted after all. I saw a tweet today that really resonated with me which says ‘I didn’t leave academia, academia is losing me’ and this is exactly how I feel. This is for two main reasons:

Lack of job opportunities. Before understanding the problems with academia, I did want to stay and I did try for one year. I applied for many post-docs (both locally and abroad), but the positions were too competitive, often going to candidates with many years of post-doc experience. I then looked into obtaining funding myself, but the fellowship opportunities that I was eligible for required a proportion of the funding to be paid by a university – I contacted many universities but none of them had the funds available. During this year, I became aware of the lack of permanent job opportunities in academia. I understood that I would have to do 10+ years of short-term positions, potentially in different regions around the world, before getting a permanent position. How did I not know this before? This lack of job opportunities may make Early Career Researchers question why they even got a PhD and did all of that hard work in the first place. It does not make them feel particularly wanted or needed in academia, and they therefore feel pushed out of the system.

Lack of security and work-life balance to have a family. In addition to the lack of job opportunities, is the lack of security and work-life balance to have a family – which especially affects women. As I am with a long-term partner and we want to start a family in the next few years (as this may not be possible after 10+ years!), I came to the conclusion that staying in academia was not for me, even if I did successfully get a short-term position. For me, the benefits of staying in academia do not outweigh the costs such as the lack of work-life balance (due to the pressures of obtaining funding and publishing), and the lack of security due to the short-term positions (including having to move locations many times and the lack of maternity support). I believe that the lack of jobs, combined with the desire to have a stable position and a work-life balance in order to have a family, is the leak in the pipeline that drives many women out of academia.

I was first heartbroken with my realisation that I could not feasibly stay in academia, because all this time I have been chasing a dream in academia that is not real. The system is broken and so I don’t want to stay. My new job provides me with everything I need to be content where I am now and start a family, which unfortunately academia does not. I hope the system can somehow be fixed in future, as academia is currently losing a lot of diverse talent.

If you are a woman who has left academia and want to share your story, anonymously or otherwise, you are welcome to email me and we’ll have a chat.

Life after PhD

To continue my tradition of trying out all the Commonwealth countries, since my last post I have moved to the UK and begun a postdoc at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. The UK is far nicer than Australians will lead you to believe – there are indeed sunny days, and gorgeous coastline, and great wildlife. None of these things are quite at Australian levels, but there are other things that at least partially make up for it. Like central heating, and the absence of huntsman spiders.

My PhD is now completely wrapped up, and I can officially use the title Dr., so I get very excited about filling in forms. For my postdoc I’m continuing to study interactions between Antarctic ice shelves and the ocean, but using a different ocean model (MITgcm), and focusing on a specific region (the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea). This project includes some ice-sheet/ocean coupling, which I’m enormously, ridiculously excited about.

A postdoc is far more relaxing than a PhD, and far less existential. I know I’m only a few months in, but many of my colleagues hold a similar opinion. At last, there is no monolithic Thesis that everything is building up to, no pressure for all your research threads to converge into a coherent narrative before your scholarship runs out, no need to justify your continued existence (“how long have you been here, again?”) There is just a period of time for which your postdoc is funded, and you do as much science as you can during that time. You have more confidence in your own abilities, since you’ve done vaguely similar things before, and everyone else seems to take you more seriously too.

Much has been written on the mental health risks of doing a PhD, both in the scientific literature and in the media. I won’t pretend to be an alarming example of this, because many students have a much, much harder time than I did. But I did operate under elevated stress during the last year and a half of my PhD, and I noticed the effect this had on my life. Regular exercise was very effective in keeping my spirits up, but it didn’t really help the insomnia.

Here’s the pleasantly surprising bit: these effects appear to go away when you finish your PhD. I don’t know what else I expected – that I would be scarred for life? All I know is that I’ve slept well nearly every night since the day I submitted my thesis. And when I look at my giant list of things to do with my model, I don’t feel overwhelmed. I just feel excited.