I recently read a New York Times article  describing a new study put out by the Center for Work Life Policy entitled “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology”. The study discusses the flight of women from private sector SET (Science Engineering and Technology) jobs and ways to retain these women. Although this study focused on private sector jobs rather than academia, academia suffers the same drain. In reading the article, I realized that I fit right into the focus group of this study: women who leave their science jobs and careers midstream. I was a biologist trained at an Ivy League university. After doing well in graduate school, I landed a post-doc and was happily on track with an academic career. But then, like the 52% of women in the study who leave science and engineering careers, I also left my traditional career in my early 30’s. My post doc just didn’t fit because there were no options for changing my long hours in the lab to accommodate the time I wanted with my growing family.
This is where I stop fitting into studies: PhD/postdoc/untenured faculty leaves academia to become a parent. I suppose it’s difficult to document such careers further because once an academic slips from the system it’s hard to find that person again. Studies may also skip over the not-officially-employed with the assumption that these individuals don’t come back into the picture. For any sociologists out there reading this, we non-traditional academics who turn to full-time parenting may well make an interesting study. Although often invisible to the traditional academic world, we have a big impact on society through writing and role modeling and contributions in local schools.
A problem for non-traditional academics is that academia is all-or-nothing. The “all” is hugely time intensive. Part-time academic positions are not very satisfactory for many reasons including low pay, minimal benefits, and lack of status within the faculty. Stepping out of the track for very long usually spells the end of a career because there are few roads back in. The Center for Work Life Policy wonders where all the women in science are, and concludes “it’s high time to fix the companies rather than continuing to attempt to “fix” women”. It would be productive to consider not just how to keep women in academia, but how to bring back trained women (and men), who left because their family responsibilities did not fit into the academic track. There has not been much brainstorming about this.
So at dinner the other night, I brainstormed. I asked my almost-tenured friend what it might take to hire someone like me, who had done well enough to secure a post doc after grad school but chose instead to depart from academia for almost 10 years. His reply: it’s taking a big chance to spend hard-earned grant money to hire someone like me rather than someone from the system who is all caught up in all the latest methods and ideas and who has an uninterrupted academic background. He would want some kind of filter to ensure he’s going to get his money’s worth. Our solution: a granting agency that would review and fund applications specifically to encourage hiring of academics who stepped out of the system. I’m intrigued with this idea. Such people, who are already trained and who have already taken time out to raise a family, are likely to remain in academia after such a return. And others, who might otherwise struggle through the heartaches of difficult family life to preserve their career, might feel able to take more time to enjoy the fleeting childhoods of their kids, and their other worldly responsibilities.
Recently my blogging colleague Drama Mama made a case for complexity as a model for a fulfilling life. My ideal for a rich existence, on the other hand, is not to problem solve complicated life/career entanglements, but to enjoy the full variety of academic and family and community life, perhaps not in the linear design of traditional academic appointments . As Drama Mama points out, each family is unique – there are oodles of different balancing strategies out there. My hope is that educational institutions will recognize the variety of life experiences that academics bring to bear, and to respond by offering a greater variety of rewarding academic positions and opportunities to reflect this. And there is lots of room for a variety of unique voices to brainstorm together to achieve this.