A Look at the PhD Problem

By Mary Ann Mason, The Daily Californian

The good news: In the past 30 years, women's entrance into graduate science and engineering programs has significantly increased. This is particularly true in the life sciences, where women now receive more than half of all PhDs.

The bad news: Women PhDs in these fields are less likely than men to enter academic research positions, where most cutting-edge scientific discovery takes place. And women who attain such positions are more likely to drop out before a tenure decision.

Our Berkeley research team has clearly identified that the leak is predominantly associated with starting a family. Married women scientists with young children who have PhD's are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure track position than married men with children. There is little difference between single women without young children and men who are married with young children. A similar leak occurs at the point of granting tenure: Married women with young children are 27 percent less likely to achieve this goal annually than married men with young children. The reality of women's reproductive lives often collides with the standard timeline for an academic career in science. An aspiring woman scientist will typically graduate college at 22, receive her PhD at around 30, complete her postdoctoral training at about 33 and then enter a tenure-track position at a research university. The time pressures are unrelenting, with demands to apply for grants, conduct research, publish results, supervise a lab and teach. If all goes well, this hypothetical woman will not get tenure until her late 30s. The average age of tenure for women has climbed to 39 in recent years.

What are universities doing to solve this problem? Not enough. In our study of the Association of American Universities-the 62 pre-eminent research institutions that receive the most federal support for science-we found that 43 percent provided no or very limited leave policies for graduate student mothers and only 13 percent offered a baseline of at least six weeks of guaranteed paid leave. For postdoctoral fellows, 15 percent of universities offered no leave or had very limited policies while a mere 23 percent provided a baseline of at least six weeks of guaranteed paid leave. Few of these young scientists are eligible for the job-protected 12-week leave of the Family Medical Leave Act. Faculty mothers fared much better, with 58 percent of institutions providing a baseline paid leave, but by this time many women have decided against scientific research careers.

Young women scientists understand this and often make their decisions before they become mothers. When I was Dean of the Graduate Division at Berkeley, my research team and I studied thousands of graduate students, postdocs and faculty members to learn more about the effects of family formation on the careers of PhD students. Our project -"Do Babies Matter?"-traced the academic careers of men and women from their doctoral years to retirement. In our recent report, "Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences" we reported that UC doctoral students, both men and women, indicated they were concerned about the family friendliness of possible careers, but research-intensive universities were considered the least family friendly of the possible choices.

Not surprisingly, perceived unfriendliness to one's family concerns within a research-intensive university-and especially the difficulty in childrearing with a successful scientific career-was shown to be a major factor for female doctoral students to "leak out" of the scientific pipeline. Young male scientists, the report shows, also have concerns about balancing work and family, but women are more likely to lower their career goals or drop out altogether.

Our current lack of family responsive support for America's researchers makes no economic or political sense. In the world of federal grants, individuals who drop out of research science after years of training represent a huge economic loss for the taxpayers. The Obama administration's stated interest in encouraging more American students to enter scientific careers should be focused on retaining our highly skilled women scientists who have already stepped up to the plate. Concrete measures, such as paid parental leave, child care and other support at both the student and faculty levels would go far to reduce this unnecessary loss. And maybe women scientists could, indeed, have it all.