Getting the Ph.D. Was the Easy Part

Women in academe continue to face far more challenges than men do, writes Renate Ysseldyk.

October 30, 2015

There is a reason that the “leaky pipeline” metaphor for women in academe is not going away. For women who fervently want an academic career, the possibility that they might leak from the pipeline is a very real fear. It isn’t that other career paths can’t be fulfilling. And it isn’t that we want women to feel guilty about leaving the academic track. Women in academe continue to face a disproportionate number of challenges compared to men. To suggest that the pipeline no longer leaks more women than men is misleading, at best.

Others have suggested that the pipe is simply “clogging farther up the line”; however, I (and several of my female colleagues) would argue that the critical time for women facing such challenges is at an earlier stage -- even earlier than the tenuous new faculty member stage. Instead, it’s during the postdoctoral stage, when professional ambitions and personal life changes first collide and women are especially vulnerable to leaving academe.

Let me walk you through just one example -- my own -- of the postdoctoral chasm in the career path of a female academic.

I crossed the stage of the university auditorium wearing my graduation cap and gown, beaming with pride as my husband and parents looked on. I had made it. Success. After 10 long years of postsecondary education, the letters “Ph.D. ” now stood behind my name. Little did I know, getting the Ph.D. was the easy part.

Like many other freshly minted Ph.D.s, I was facing the turbulent world of postdoctoral fellowships and the academic job market. For women, this world can be especially problematic. Postdoc positions hold no promise for continued employment but have become almost obligatory in pursuing an academic career in the sciences. Success is vital to move on to the next stage: a tenure-track position.

With this job uncertainty, however, comes a host of other challenges that are particularly difficult for women to surmount: impostor syndrome (“Will they find out that I’m not really good enough?”), which disproportionately affects women; overturning gender norms (“Your husband is quitting his job to follow you where?”); breaking through the glass ceiling (and then, often, avoiding the glass cliff); and sexism (yes, unbelievably, still a problem).

But most unique to women is the question of babies, and postdoc positions usually coincide with the years when this major life decision must be made. At the beginning of my postdoc, although I was married, I had no intention of having children and was happily focused on my research. Then I turned 30.

Fast-forward to the birth of my first child. I was excited to become a parent, and felt confident that my motivation to stay on the academic track would remain intact. I was fortunate to have a postdoctoral fellowship (through CIFAR -- the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research) with a reasonable parental leave policy. I tried to enjoy the precious newborn moments, but knew that if I stopped publishing research articles during my maternity leave (the norm in Canada being a full year), I’d have a huge gap in my CV that would hurt my chances of pursuing an academic career. So during my baby’s naps, I worked. After my baby went to bed, I worked. I even went on my first academic job interview bringing the baby (and my husband) with me, so that I could breast-feed -- twice -- during the 12-hour interview. I didn’t get the job.

I started a second postdoc and continued to apply for academic positions while I juggled my research projects, baby rearing and sleep deprivation. I was invited for three more academic interviews (a huge feat in itself) -- one while seven months pregnant with my second child, the others with breast pump in tow. But my confidence and career aspirations were becoming rattled. I was testing my physical and mental limits. This was more than difficult.

Unfortunately, this scenario is a familiar one for many women in postdoctoral positions. Many of our best scholars fall out of academe due to a collision of career building and child rearing. Mary Ann Mason of the University of California at Berkeley has written extensively about the trials faced by postdoctoral (and professorial) mothers. She notes that women pay a baby penalty. Men don’t. In fact, they often get a baby boost. As others have noted, because women are expected to sacrifice having children as the price of an academic career, fewer women will choose academe before they even get there.

So what can be done? We need to bring these barriers to the surface so we can address them. Women can start the conversation. Talk about the challenges -- that can help to normalize them and increase acceptance that they are indeed very real. (You are not the only one who feels like an impostor!) Counter the biases around you with facts in order to dispel the myths. Be open about your ambitions and the reality of what you can accomplish during a maternity leave. Then record your achievements and account for career breaks, in real time.

But addressing the barriers is not a job for sleep-deprived postdoctoral mothers to accomplish alone. Cultural change within the academy is needed to increase acceptance and understanding that maternity leave during the postdoctoral stage takes a toll on a woman’s research output, but that this is not a negative indicator of her faculty career prospects or her own motivation to succeed academically.

For example, the current academic culture is ambiguous about whether or not a woman should explicitly mention a maternity leave on her CV -- doing so might suggest to a hiring committee that she isn’t “devoted” to her career; failing to do so leaves an ostensibly inexplicable hole in her all-important publication record. Standardized governmental and institutional policies that explicitly recognize such realities will help, but are only a starting point.

With a lot of stamina and support, and not a lot of sleep or sanity, I’m happy to report that I’ve recently been hired into an assistant professor position, and my children are growing like weeds. My job is incredibly fulfilling and remarkably flexible with kids in tow. But getting my Ph.D. was the easy part. In the postdoc chasm, I simultaneously felt like a professional failure and negligent mother while I anxiously pursued a job that might never materialize. It doesn’t have to be this difficult. But it’s up to all of us -- not just the dogged commitment of young female academics -- to change that.

Have I finally made it? I’m not so naïve to think that challenges won’t lie ahead. And although I’ve worked hard, any success I’ve achieved is shared with the many people -- family and friends, academic peers and mentors -- who supported me along the way. But now, even as the tenure clock is ticking and the pipeline continues to leak, here’s hoping the hardest part is behind me.


Renate Ysseldyk is assistant professor of health sciences at Carleton University, in Canada. Her experience is an example of those encountered by a group of junior female academics who helped in preparing this essay -- Maya Bhatia, Anne Broadbent, Margaret Frye, Katie Greenaway, Elena Hassinger, Else Starkenburg and Vera Tai -- all funded by CIFAR postdoctoral fellowships across the full spectrum of scientific disciplines.


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