Looking to the Source

Analysis at chemistry meeting asks why some graduate departments are so much more successful than others at placing their female Ph.D.'s and postdocs in top positions.
August 17, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Much of the discussion of women in science -- and their relative scarcity in faculty positions -- focuses on the hiring departments. A study presented here Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society reversed that focus. The research showed that among top chemistry departments, there is huge variation in how successful their female doctoral graduates and postdocs are at landing tenure-track positions.

That finding is important, said Valerie J. Kuck, because it establishes that there may be specific policies or environments at some but not all top programs that need to be identified and replicated. And those policies may go beyond the societal issues some offer as explanations/excuses for the failure of chemistry faculty positions to show the same progress seen for women in new Ph.D.'s.

Kuck noted, in response to an audience member asking about the desire of women to have children, that "the women at Berkeley have the same biological clocks as other women, but they are getting jobs." (Details will follow on the individual institutions, but the University of California at Berkeley bests all of its rivals in having its female Ph.D.'s in chemistry land top jobs, and women who want top positions may be advised to look West for postdocs, as Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University all do well for their women.)

Kuck's research also suggests that it is important for those focusing on gender equity to pay attention to a relatively small group of graduate departments and postdoc programs that are the dominant producers of faculty members at research universities. Kuck is an American Chemical Society board member whose career included industry (Bell Laboratories and Lucent Technologies) and teaching positions at the College of St. Elizabeth, Seton Hall University and other colleges.

For her study, Kuck examined the chemistry faculties of 94 universities that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching categorized as having a "very high research activity." She found that 23 percent of the tenure-track or tenured faculty in these departments had earned Ph.D.'s between 1994 and 2003, and focused on this group of recently hired faculty; then she found that 12 universities trained 54 percent of those hired by Carnegie's research university category.

Her next step was to find how many Ph.D.'s from these top universities had landed jobs at her group of top research universities. Here she found sharp differences. Berkeley, for instance, placed 31 men and 21 women in these highly coveted faculty jobs. Harvard University Ph.D.'s in chemistry did very well if they were men (32 were among those landing these jobs). But only 2 female Harvard Ph.D.'s in chemistry landed these jobs.

The following table shows the numbers of Ph.D.'s landing jobs at top research universities from the 12 graduate programs with the greatest number of graduates landing these jobs.

Ph.D. Graduates From Top 12 Universities With Faculty Jobs at Research Universities

University Male Female Total
Berkeley 31 21 52
MIT 30 6 36
Harvard 32 2 34
CalTech 22 7 29
Wisconsin, Madison 17 6 23
Stanford 20 3 23
Yale 12 6 18
Texas 13 1 14
Illinois, Urbana-Champaign 11 3 14
Columbia 11 3 14
North Carolina, Chapel Hill 8 5 13
Cornell 13 0 13


Then Kuck went on to analyze the patterns in postdocs. Here she found that 94 percent of the recently hired faculty at research universities had a postdoc, which is consistent with other findings that the postdoc has become a de facto requirement for many science faculty jobs. At these universities, however, there is a postdoc gender gap in chemistry -- with women (31 percent of the pool of new Ph.D.'s) holding only 22 percent of the postdocs.

Here again, she found that a relatively small number of institutions train a disproportionate number of those landing top jobs. Only eight postdoc programs trained 65 percent of the recently hired faculty members at the research universities studied. And once again, she found that some postdoc programs were much more successful than others in terms of women. At three California institutions -- Stanford, Berkeley and CalTech -- the share of their participants who went on to a faculty job at a research university who were women were 41, 28, and 25 percent respectively. For other postdoc programs, the numbers were much lower.

Postdoc Program Participants Who Land Jobs at Research Universities




Postdocs who go on to faculty job at research university Fraction of hires who are women
Post-doc Inst. Males Females Total % Female
Harvard 52 8 60 13%
CalTech 30 10 40 25
MIT 33 6 39 15
Berkeley 26 10 36 28
Scripps 21 4 25 16
Columbia 17 2 19 11
Northwestern 15 2 17 12
Stanford 10 7 17 41


Kuck said that the findings, together, suggest that "something peculiar is happening to women" at most programs if just a few are having so much more success. For starters, she said that graduate programs need to encourage and assist women in getting the best postdocs.

As to why some programs are so much more successful with women, she said she wasn't sure. She tried to identify a correlation between number of female faculty members and the success of female graduates, but the share of female faculty members in these departments is so small across the board that there is no evidence for that theory, she said.

She noted that by focusing on the top universities, the talent of the men and women in these programs is outstanding, as anyone who wasn't would never get in or through such a graduate program or postdoc. "We're looking at our very best schools -- not East Podunk," she said.

So why are some universities better? "I don’t have direct evidence, but I have to believe that the environment is different at Berkeley and the advocacy for getting [graduates] positions is different. If we look at the top six schools, why is it that Berkeley all by itself can place almost half of the pool of women that got jobs. Something is going on."

Michael Marletta, chair of chemistry at Berkeley, was not at the presentation, but in a phone interview offered some of his thoughts on his department's success getting women on the fast track to faculty careers. Marletta said that while it is important that Berkeley has a range of policies and programs and organizations for women, he thinks the larger intellectual climate and environment also matter a lot.

For example, while Kuck noted a "pipeline leak" with women Ph.D.'s not seeking postdocs, Marletta said it is the absolute expectation at Berkeley that doctoral students -- male and female -- plan not only for a postdoc, but for "a top postdoc" and that they get them.

He also noted that Berkeley has success by having a critical mass of female graduate students (about 35 percent, less than he would like but better than many programs, Marletta said). They enter a program that has been designated tops in the nation by the National Research Council, and where "there is a tone about quality." Marletta also noted that many of the other top programs are at private institutions, and he thinks there is value in promoting diversity in the public mission of Berkeley as "a big, complicated public university."

Marletta said Berkeley faculty members believe that anyone admitted into the program can succeed and thrive in the field, and that they convey that to their graduate students -- and that attitude over time, Marletta said, is a key part to encouraging women.

He also predicted that approach would help Berkeley move beyond its "very average state" in having women on its chemistry faculty. The two most recent hires, he noted, are women -- one of whom earned her Ph.D. there and is returning after a postdoc at Yale.

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