“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.