June 2011

Why the drop-out? A junior faculty perspective

Didem Vardar-Ulu looks asks why the number of women scientists dwindle as they go up the scientific ranks. 

Fewer women want to pursue a principal investigator position (1).

I just came back from another invigorating American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting in Washington, D.C., packed with the usual cutting-edge scientific sessions as well as several exciting sessions on the future of life sciences education. However, what surprised me the most was the quantity and quality of sessions and workshops focused on providing substantive career support for current graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty. When I first started coming to these meetings, the available career guidance was restricted to a few talks outlining standard career options followed by workshops on how to polish up your resume and what to say in an interview to convince employers that you are who they want you to be. While these services are still offered, it is great to see that the emphasis has shifted toward helping young scientists identify their own strengths and priorities early and providing practical advice on how to excel using their own potentials as scientists. There also is a clear growing interest in offering practical mentorship to help tackle the challenges of a scientific career, especially for young women scientists struggling to strike a balance between work and family life.
The women biochemists mixer on Tuesday evening certainly was one of those occasions. We heard and discussed several personal stories about a variety of challenges faced by women biochemists across the entire career spectrum in an informal and nonjudgmental setting. I have been to these mixers before, so I was not surprised when the conversation led to the familiar question: Why does the number of women scientists dwindle as they go up the scientific ranks? Despite the fact that about 45 percent of postdocs in the biomedical sciences are women, women hold only about 29 percent of tenure track positions and only about 19 percent of tenured faculty positions (1). However, what did surprise me was that there apparently are still many senior women scientists who believe that women are afraid to ask for what they need or are less willing to push their agenda forward compared to their male counterparts, resulting in their self-selection out of the system. Though this may still be true in some cases, many recent studies addressing the drop-off issue reveal the main reason to be the inability, especially for women scientists, to strike a reasonable work/life balance. Based on many discussions on this issue with female colleagues at different stages of their scientific careers, I am persuaded that our generation of junior faculty is much less fearful than our senior colleagues believe us to be. Thanks to all the doors they have cracked open for us, many of us know that if we push hard enough, we will get through. On the other hand, we also have witnessed the high price many of those women had to pay, and we realize that for many of us now, it is not only about making it through.

One of my favorite movies is “The Race for the Double Helix.” Every semester I teach my biochemistry course, we have a movie night with popcorn and watch it, and then we spend significant class time comparing and contrasting the contributions of each of the players to this important discovery. Not surprisingly, at a women’s liberal arts college whose mission is to “educate women who will make a difference in the world,” the debate about Rosalind Franklin always becomes pretty heated. Every time we come to the scene where Rosalind is given a basement room to conduct her research and is not allowed into the men’s lounge, I am reminded of how far we have come in ensuring equal opportunities for women scientists, and I am grateful to all our predecessors for making this happen. Yet I feel that this initial quest was relatively straightforward, because every woman had the same goal: to fight for the opportunity. The next pursuit is more complex and therefore more challenging: to ensure sustainable opportunities that do not require women to make choices that men do not have to make. During our evening discussion, someone pointed out that things are much better now than they were before, since there are now several examples of women scientists with families in high ranks. Though I am sure this is true, most of the ones I see have yet to find some quality time they can spend with their families without feeling guilty.

 “One of my favorite movies is ‘The Race for the Double Helix.’ Every semester I teach my biochemistry course, we have a movie night with popcorn and watch it, and then we spend significant class time comparing and contrasting the contributions of each of the players to this important discovery.”

It is curious to witness so many women junior faculty members pronounced inadequate or not a good fit for their jobs after a few years into their independent careers when they were found perfectly on a par with their male counterparts just a few years before. It makes you wonder if it really is the decline of an individual’s performance or our inability to assess scientific worthiness appropriately. At the ASBMB meeting, I met many young women who are trying exciting new initiatives at the academic positions they have been offered, yet their performance still is being assessed by traditional standards. Perhaps it is time to be looking for some innovative ways to incorporate the values and expectations of today’s global society into the scientific productivity analysis. Encouraging a system that focuses on honoring and rewarding diverse individual strengths and contributions would go a long way to ensuring a more balanced and sustainable scientific career model.

Our careers should not be battles to get from one point to the next and simply demonstrate it can be done. When we reach each of our milestones, we should still have the energy and passion to serve as role models for younger scientists with our enthusiasm, knowledge and experience through engagement in high quality science. At the time of tenure, we should have more than just our peer-reviewed journal articles to be proud of as personal accomplishments. We should not only be relying on our colleagues to pick our children up from school when we are running late because we have not had the time to get to know any other parents in our kids’ classrooms. Hence, I would like to leave you with the idea that perhaps it is not the fear of failure at a specific career milestone that is causing the self-selection of women at higher ranks of the scientific career but rather the fear of an unsustainable life beyond that success and the awareness of all the life-long compromises they have to make during the long journey.


1. Martinez, E.D., Botos, J., Dohoney, K.M., Geiman, T.M., Kolla, S.S., Olivera, A., Qiu, Y., Rayasam, G.V., Stavreva, D.A., and Cohen-Fix, O. (2007) Falling off the academic bandwagon. Women are more likely to quit at the postdoc to principal investigator transition. EMBO Rep. 8, 977 – 981.

Didem Vardar-Ulu
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
SCI Science Center
Wellesley College

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