Ask the Grumpies: Should I stay or should I go now?

Pessimistic grad student sent a question to us, to Wandering Scientist, and to Isis-the-scientist.   We’re curious to see their responses!  (And we’ve bumped this week’s Google questions to next week– sorry!)

She asks:

I’m a female PhD student in a natural science.  I originally entered graduate school because I wanted to teach and conduct research.  I knew the job market wasn’t great, and that women still had mountains to climb, but it seemed scalable.  Now, the further along I get, the more insurmountable the challenges appear to be.

I’m also frustrated that gender/ motherhood still seem to hold so much sway in career prospects:  women receive about half the PhDs, but rapidly drop off in the postdoc ranks and have a low representation in tenure track jobs (the well-referenced leaky pipeline).  Part of me wants to pursue academia and fight the good fight at a liberal arts college (not R01) type school and not contribute to that leaky pipeline.  The other part is more jaded—with such low job availability (and even if you land a job, terrible grant odds), it seems like the more realistic and practical option is to pursue a non-academic path—either after a postdoc, or just dispensing with the post-doc altogether—instead of 5+ years of frequent moves/ low job security/ lack of guaranteed retirement benefits/ maternity leave.  The other factor is that non-academic jobs may offer better ‘balance’, and be more portable.   I’m also trying to balance the desire to be close to my spouse—I draw the line at long term long distance, after doing it before—and my desire to have kids sooner rather than later.

Non-academic jobs for my skill set tend to involve government work (also less hiring these days) or non-profits—there isn’t really a traditional industry option in my area (without extensive retraining), otherwise I’d love to consider it.  I could potentially also look at teaching only (community college or non-tenure track lectureship) jobs if I avoided the adjuncting dead-end.

I’m conflicted.  I’ve planned to pursue academia since high school (!), with no deviations along the way.  Abandoning that career path feels like giving up on a dream.  I also don’t want to give up before I’ve really started, particularly with the ‘lean in’ mindset of Sheryl Sandberg and others.  However, I’ve met enough older, jaded post-docs, with no career prospects in sight (at a very highly ranked department) to make me wary of following their footsteps.

The most logical step is likely to reconsider my direction after a post-doc.  But, I’m finding that my pessimism is harming my enthusiasm for my work, and I’m wondering if that’s a sign I should strike out in a different direction sooner rather than later.

Well, we’re social scientists and the job market is better for us.  We have met folks with your exact same story (minus the being female part)… in graduate school to get a social science PhD after ditching natural science graduate school, and another with a degree in physics from a top school who was doing RA work for an economist after he graduated.  Several schools have masters programs in which they train scientists to become finance people who can work on Wall Street.

We might have a post up next week titled, “Academia is just a job”… it’s almost finished but we haven’t gotten around to finishing and queuing for the week.  But it is true.  Academia is just a job.  The PhD is a certificate that you need in order to do certain kinds of jobs or to get a certain salary scale (for instance, in gov’t work).

It is true that it’s a job that has nice perks, like flexibility, academic freedom, tenure, working with other PhDs, and so on.  But it also has downsides– you don’t get to choose where you live, lower salaries, the tenure clock can be harsh, you may not like those other PhDs you’re tenured with and see all the time, and so on.

Still it is just a job.   Even after we have tenure, we may not stay as professors forever.  The siren call of Northern California is always in the background, singing to us of its weather and food and natural beauty.  Not to mention all of our other friends from high school and a few from college.  (Oh, and also the $.  But that’s kind of balanced out by the cost of living.)

I really like academia, but when I started I said that I would not make any major sacrifices in my life just for the sake of a job.  Because I would feel bad both not getting tenure if I’d made those sacrifices and if I got tenure having made those sacrifices.  In each case I’d feel better off seeing if I could have done the same thing without the sacrifices.  That’s not the same as leaning in– I figured I’d try for both tenure and a family and if it didn’t happen, well, I’m a smart, educated, skilled, person whose abilities are worth far more in industry than they are in academia. And so long as I enjoy the journey, it doesn’t really matter if I make it to the prescribed destination.

I do not think that industry offers better hours than academia.  Both industry and academia will try to take as many hours as you let them take.  You have to set limits for yourself– at some point the job no longer becomes worth it if you kill yourself to do it.  Cloud also talks about how you start screwing stuff up if you work too many hours.

I’m also not sure that fixing the leaky pipeline for a field that has too many phds and not enough jobs for them is the best use of your woman-power.  There’s still plenty of trail-blazing to do outside of academia as well.

My advice… figure out what you want to be doing next year.  Are you interested in the projects you’ll be working on?  Do you have other opportunities you’d like to compare?  Think about several different 2-5 year plans.  Make your fertility decisions separate from your employment decisions (there are a few cases in which you would want to combine the decision, but not with most civilian employment).  Save up enough money that you have an “FU fund” to turn employment risks into calculated employment risks.

And remember, even if you’re in theoretical physics, you can always make a ton of money working in finance.  Yes, there’s retraining, but it isn’t as much as you think.  That PhD taught you how to learn.

Grumpy Nation, if you haven’t already given your wisdom elsewhere, how about sharing it here?

19 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: Should I stay or should I go now?”

  1. NoTrustFund Says:

    I’m not in academia so I have no advice for you on that front. I have however spent my career in a male dominated field and share SS’s alma matter so hear about her a lot through that source being held up as what we all could achiever.

    On a lot of this I need to listen to my own advice so take this with a grain of salt.

    Fighting the fight is only worth it if it’s what you really want to do. Try to separate what you want to do from what you feel like you should do. It may be the same thing but maybe not.

    I am a huge SS fan and cannot wait to read her book next month. However, as a working woman with two babes I find her ‘lean in’ message is not helpful for me to hear right now, it make me feel guilty that I’m not running something and taking over the world all with kids and nanny following. This is not what I want right now. I moved out of a super high stress long hour job before having kids and am so glad I did.

    Good luck. And remember you can always try something and change your mind.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think SS would argue to stay in a super stressful job if you don’t want to be in one. Her argument was to not take some imaginary future into account– make decisions based on the now or the near future that’s likely to be. (Wasn’t her example about women who didn’t have boyfriends and weren’t considering sperm donors any time soon stepping back because of potential future children, even though being in a position of power would provide more flexibility later, should they end up reproducing?)

      • NoTrustFund Says:

        No, I don’t think she would argue you should stay in a job you don’t like. But I do think her message is that if woman worked harder and liked their jobs more, and put their hands up for big jobs, there would be more women at high levels. And I actually think this is totally true and I love that she is willing to come out and say this. I just don’t want to hold my hand up right now. :)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think the message I got underlying everything I’ve read from her is the idea that you shouldn’t be afraid of failure. Maybe you won’t be able to balance the family and career you want, but you won’t know unless you try, and if you don’t try then you won’t be balancing the two. That’s very different from not holding your hand up because you don’t want to.

        I think SS would totally approve of you! Or at least, I bet she wouldn’t want you to feel guilty about your choices.

  2. plantingourpennies Says:

    I left academia with a consolation masters from the PhD program I enrolled in because it became pretty evident that the women-hating environment I was in wasn’t going to be conducive to my long-term mental health. (A STEM department at an Ivy if it makes any difference.)
    Transitioning out to non-academia at that point was relatively seamless. I had a brief stop-over in an inner-city high school (TFA type program), and moved to finance/consulting within 1-year from being out of grad school.
    Out in “the real world”, employers are less focused on the exact topics of your research and more focused on the fact that you know how to analyze data objectively and can learn things quickly.
    Hope that helps!

  3. Alyssa Says:

    Leave now. If the only reasons to stay on the academic track are 1) it was a dream since high school and 2) feeling guilty for not fighting the fight, then look at other options. If its not what you love, and doesn’t mesh with how you want your life (whole life, not just work life) to be, then it’s not worth it to stay.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I agree. I’ve commented here before that I fled academia after getting my Master’s degree. It just became clear to me that …
      a) I can do research (a.k.a. reading) on my own time, to suit myself, and write about whatever I want;
      b) teaching is an unrespected profession, even if you are have a Ph.D., and is compensated accordingly;
      c) the red tape and politics involved in academia are worse than anywhere else I’ve seen except maybe in church hierarchies;
      d) not being able to choose WHERE to live and work was an absolute deal-breaker.
      If I had gone through to get a Ph.D. in History (HAHAHAHAAAaaaaargh), and this would have been in 97-98, I would very likely have been unable to find a permanent full-time position ANYWHERE in the U.S. It’s highly likely I would have ended up doing a combination of community college and tutoring somewhere in the back of beyond.

      I opted to work full-time in legal support and have never regretted it.

  4. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    “Make your fertility decisions separate from your employment decisions” — exactly. One of my biggest beefs with various articles and such saying that women should focus on kids first then career, or career first then kids, is that it makes it sound like it’s not possible to do both. You can have kids as a grad student, or as a post-doc, or in the early years of tenure-track jobs. You can have kids as a medical or law student, during residency, during the early years of a big corporate career, Wall Street career, whatever. There are women who have done all these things. They don’t all hate their lives. Some of them are happy! I would guess most don’t feel they’ve completely outsourced parenting either. I am looking forward to SS’s book as well

  5. SP Says:

    The only suggestion I have is to apply for jobs that you aren’t sure you are the “perfect” fit for. We definitely hire physics people at my work place, but very few apply, because we are an engineering company. Be open minded. Granted, the job market is not great these days, but for educated and bright people with geographic flexibility, there is something out there!

    Looking forward to that post next week, so i can send it to my husband! He is in the horribly anxiety ridden period of applications & interviews, and so far, we don’t have a back up plan. (Though we have some options that could be turned into a plan if it comes to it….)

  6. Cloud Says:

    I’ll give my wisdom, such as it is, in a post over on my blog next week, since the email question also came to me. I think your advice is good, particularly the bit about making fertility and career decisions separately. The only time I mingled the two was when I decided to wait a few extra months before trying to get pregnant the second time, to make sure I knew what my job situation was going to be. But- I knew from the first time around that the chances were very high that I would not have trouble conceiving. I also knew that I would not have been crushed if the fates decided I’d be stopping at one kid. There is no way in the world I would advise someone to gamble on their fertility and wait for the “best” time to have a kid from a career standpoint. There is no best time. Just times with different issues to address!

    The only other thing I’ll add here (since I don’t think I’ll discuss it in my post) is that as much as I like the example Sheryl Sandberg is setting, and think she has some good, smart things to say- her advice is not applicable to everyone. No one’s advice is applicable to everyone. Listen to what everyone says, think about, and then take from it the bits that are useful for YOUR life. Do what will make YOU happy and fulfilled. You don’t owe the rest of us anything. You know who owes women the effort to change the sexism in the current environment? The men who perpetrate it and benefit from it. It is NOT our responsibility to fix this. We didn’t break it.

    OK, maybe I will put some of that in my post. But it can stand to be repeated.

    Thanks for the good post, grumpies. I’ll definitely link back to it when I write mine.

  7. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    We should also add that you should read this post and get the book mentioned:

  8. First Gen American Says:

    I can’t speak to the academia bit but as a woman in a male dominated profession, you will be fighting the good fight whether you stay in academia or not. I never considered myself a vocal feminist, but I became a feminist anyway because of the job I have and the things people pull me into because I am a minority. “Hey, you’re a woman engineer, I need you to showcase that we hire diverse people” and suddenly I am on the recruiting team. Just being a woman is enough in most cases to fight the good fight, subtly or not. I’ve seen a lot change for the better these last 20 years. I am not resentful that I get asked to represent and get sucked into all these things. I am glad I am part of what’s driving the change, if change actually happens.

    There are lots and lots of ways to drive change and choosing a career outside of academia is not going to affect that in my opinion.

  9. sciliz Says:

    Every women I know in STEM has, at some point(s), wondered if they aren’t enjoying it ‘enough’ because of THEMSELVES or because of the field or because of SEXISM. It’s hard to tell, and that can make it hard to feel confident in life decisions.

    One thing I will say- in my experience, and this may only be me, your ability to find joy in the field grows over time…if it hung around since high school, it’s probably for real ;-). Not only that, but the objective challenges of research get easier with time. You become acclimated to failure, and you eventually realize you can learn anything you need to (given enough time).

    However, *many* women report increasing challenges with sexism as they move up the career ladder. You can’t become acclimated to the sexism, because the more powerful you get the worse it gets (that is, the discrepancy between men and women becomes more pronounced). So if your STEM field is getting less fun over time, odds are pretty good it’s because the structural problems with the field (both sexism and things like job insecurity) are getting much more salient.

    SO… in general, when I talk to friends, I usually tell the it’s not them. Or the field. It is the sexism (in myriad forms), and sometimes the structural things. However, I have no data this mentality results in better-adjusted individuals than other beliefs (some people get chips on their shoulders. And sometimes, that’s perfectly understandable given what they’ve been through. Again, complicated). And I don’t think that, even if it is primarily a sign there is a fight to be had, that this *obligates* anyone in particular to stick around to fight it. Some of us are motivated by fighting the good fight. Some of us are motivated by that until we have kids and we realize the opportunities for social engineering are best pursued through more maleable minds than our own. And some of us are motivated by that, but cease to be motivated *enough* at some point when we get older/more realistic/tireder. I know people in each category who are happy, and also those in each category who have some small less-than-fully-actualized personhood issues. It’s an imperfect world.

    So anyway. I don’t have any answers as to what the *right* answer for this correspondent is. But I sure hear where she’s coming from! And I can’t help but feel that, when taken with all the other stories, these dilemmas are signs of Big Problems with STEM.

  10. Perpetua Says:

    I can’t really offer advice because it’s difficult to get a sense of how the OP really feels about her situation based on the one letter. But I can offer some thoughts based on my experience.

    To me, SS’s “leaning in” is about not giving up before you get there. If something is your passion, you should try it. If it doesn’t work, you can give it up and try something else. It’s not like taking a postdoc in academia will destroy every opportunity to go into private industry, right? So if academia is your passion, give it a shot. It may not work out, for a variety of reasons, but anything can fall through.

    IME, we don’t really know how we are going to feel about a situation until we are in it. We can make educated guesses, but I think we should always go with our gut and heart, and know that we can always change our minds if it turns out differently (and be conscious of the fact that it *may* turn out differently than we expect).

    So for me, I have a passion for academia and knew that’s what I wanted. But I also wanted a family, and decided that my family would always come first, and I didn’t want a high powered career, etc. I got lucky – a t-t job straight out of grad school with a 2-2 teaching load, in a place I really wanted to live, a dream job – and as I grew in my profession I became aware of how ambitious I am. I’ve since “traded up” to a more intense job that’s put me on a more demanding career path. I didn’t know how ambitious I was until I was into the career. (And some people realize they hate academia once they get there, or that it’s not worth or whatever. It can go both ways.) And this was so even though I had kids (though I’ve slowed down since having them, I tend to take the long view, the slow down is temporary in an long term active career). And my job has caused considerable sacrifices for my whole family – my partner and I live 350 miles apart and have done so for 6 years. If you’d asked me in grad school or when I was pregnant with my first baby if I would live apart from my partner while caring for two small children, I would have said no way. But here I am doing it, not because I feel trapped, but because I’m finding ways of making it work.

    When I hear SS’s advice, I hear someone granting me permission to take my passions and desires and career seriously, to sometimes *put it first*, without guilt. If I were miserable, I would quit and find something else to do. My point is, you won’t know if academia will work with the life you want until you see where the path leads you. It might lead you to adjunct hell, in which case you can ditch it and do something else. It might lead you to your dream t-t and a feeling of “yes, this is what I’ve always wanted.” (and last data point: I did have my babies before tenure, more and more women do now.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is also my read on SS. I wonder why so many folks read it differently.

      I think this is really great advice. I had a student in our masters 5 year program who wanted to drop out (she was feeling stupid even though she was actually one of our better students and would end up with As after various professors put in their curve, she was also on full scholarship so not going into debt) and just get the undergrad degree and not the masters. And I asked her, what was her alternative? Did she have a job lined up, or a plan to get one? Did she know what she wanted to do? And she didn’t. So I refused to sign her paperwork until she had another plan in place. In the end she stuck it out and had a much better second year and had a job lined up after graduation.

      A good question is, what is your next best alternative? Is that next best alternative better than your current position? A post-doc is just one of many jobs. There’s no reason not to apply to post-docs and a few industry jobs on top of that, then see what you get and do the cost-benefit analysis. But you don’t have to apply to everything that comes your way if you know that the lab has a bad reputation or the town doesn’t fit your current wants.

  11. Worth Mentioning #26 | Planting Our Pennies Says:

    […] so, but I think the big thing is that it’s a very personal decision.  I hope that the post Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? and the comments from readers help provide the anon PhD student with some perspective, but in the […]

  12. Leah Says:

    I bailed out after my MS at an R1, and it was the best decision for me. You have to weigh your personal factors. For me, I had a rude and unsupportive advisor who worked in a completely different manner than me and didn’t understand how to mentor a student who wasn’t like him. I had to get over the “but everyone expects this! and “I’ve wanted this since XYZ time” issues. I ended up going into teaching anyway (I did an MS in eco/evo bio) via waystops at environmental education and some teaching college as I got my license. I now teach HS. I get to do more of the teaching I love. Teaching is still hard, and I sometimes dream about industry or a different field entirely, but this is still what I feel drawn to. I’m open to change and don’t think I’ll do this my whole career, but I still enjoy it.

    Good luck with your decision!

  13. Jenny F. Scientist, PhD Says:

    Did I accidentally write you this letter ten years ago, when I was in grad school? Because I could have written this.

    I would say that, though children and work are two separate decisions, sometimes the financial aspects of grad school – particularly if one’s partner does not have a substantial income – make it impractical to have kids in grad school. We, for example, would have had to take out loans to pay for childcare.

    My decisions were taken on the same lines as N&M’s: Will I regret making this sacrifice if I don’t get what I want at the end? Do I like what I am doing at least 51% of the time? And though I went through the same ‘giving up/ leaking out/ etc’, in the end, I was not interested in making myself miserable for someone else’s ideals.

    I think it’s also important to be realistic. The last time I read NSF stats, only 30% of postdocs even got TT jobs (in the natural sciences, that is). If you do want a SLAC job – and this is based on the very recent experience of my spouse! – you will have to have significant teaching experience during or after your postdoc, or else they will probably not interview you. Spouse taught a class a semester for three years, and he still didn’t get any SLAC interviews.

    And finally, I had similar doubts, and made sure to cultivate non-academic skills (editing work, running things, various marketable instrumental techniques) so as to diversify my options. It can be done.

    (Also, is this person stuck in the end-of-2nd-year/3rd-year Slough of Despond? Been there.)

  14. Worth Mentioning #26 Says:

    […] so, but I think the big thing is that it’s a very personal decision.  I hope that the post Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? and the comments from readers help provide the anon PhD student with some perspective, but in the […]

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