11 November 2005

Academia: the path to science

Ever consider becoming a famous scientist? There is a set path that you must take to get there.

  1. Bachelor's of Science (BS) from a 4-year college or university.

  2. Sometimes get a Master's of Science (MS) along the way, but it's really optional.

  3. Get a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) degree from a major research university, averaging 6 years after entering grad school.

  4. Complete 2-6 years of postdoctoral research (post-doc) at various major research institutions, each time on a 1-2 year contract.

  5. Land your first faculty position for some 3-5 years.

  6. Switch to a tenure-track faculty position elsewhere.

  7. Get tenure 6-10 years later.

  8. Rest on your laurels.

Not explicitly mentioned in here are issues such as time commitment. Undergrad's the best time of your life. As a grad if you're lucky you get a research assitantship or fellowship which allows you to be paid to do your research. You probably work 70 hours a week because you love your work so much. If you're extremely lucky you also have health insurance bundled in there somewhere. If you're not lucky, you get a teaching assistantship. In addition to taking 3 classes a semester (each individually as difficult as taking 5 undergrad classes) and researching 70 hours a week, you're teaching and/or grading up to 3 freshman classes, with up to 300 students each.

Then you get your postdoc. While some grad students are unionized, no postdocs are, few have health insurance, and to make matters worse you report only directly to one individual. Without his letter, your career stops dead in its tracks. You are appointed for one to two years at a time, but you need to keep doing this for some two to six years to get enough publications under your belt that you have a chance of moving on. After some shopping around in postdoc positions, and further shopping among non-tenure track faculty positions, you then have to continue working your ass off both teaching and doing research in a tenure-track position. After six to ten years of continual teaching, supervising grad students and postdocs, and continual publishing, you MAY get tenure.

At which point you can consider starting a family.

Okay, let's do some math here. Assuming no getting off track in the process, you start college around age 18. You get your BS (and we all know what that stands for) around age 22, your optional MS (more of the same) around age 24-25, your PhD (piled higher and deeper) at 28. You then post-doc until you're 30 if you're good, or until age 34 more typically. At the very earliest, you get tenure at age 36, but something like 40-45 is typical and reasonable.

So sometime in then you either have a baby and destroy your career if you're a woman, or watch your wife have one if you're a man, or you wait until you have tenure and risk your own life and that of your baby since you're so OLD.

The Chronicle has a thought provoking article about one woman's story of this. They also provide a discussion page where issues such as The Law are brought up (helps in theory, but in practice won't make the advisor write a letter for you), and why didn't the husband of the woman in question help? The last is a good point, but sadly most employers are even more reluctant to give family leave to men than to women.

*sigh* This is what I have to look forward to in a few years. I should get tenure by when I'm 32, so I guess my teaching-track career has given me that advantage over a research-track. And while I'll probably stay home with my baby for a semester if I can, I expect my partner to do so himself when I have to return to work.

And this post was probably the most personal I'll ever get on this blog, so relish it while you can! :-P

Note to Self (4/3/07): More links here.


doris said...

Might be a personal post but it is a harsh reality. But maybe you can break a few frontiers :-)

Ash Sere said...

It took me only 6 years to become a barrister. Now I'm looking at the same job title for the rest of my life... Of course, the work I do therein will vary hugely...

Isn't life fun? You've got to be sure, very early, to get into the right track...

zandperl said...

Or else very sure later when you change tracks.

utenzi said...

Famous might be a bit optimistic but this is definitely a good recipe for becoming an academic scientist.

The lab you're a doctoral student in and that first postdoc spot are so crucial!

cmoore said...

Intriguingly, I read this post of yours and this post on another blog back-to-back. It is striking and sad how universal this issue is in academia.

zandperl said...

Cmore- thanks for the link. I wish there were more universal policies about this. The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy has been pushing for it, but the male majority in science academia doesn't give a flying fig. And I don't even know if my current boyfriend does, and we've been going out for nearly five years! It's just not something that I think men think about.

zandperl said...

OH! I'ts you! I didn't see the icon before. :-P Hi!