8 Ways to Improve the Academic System for Science and Scientists

I’ve enjoyed most of my time working in academic science in the U.S. and Germany as a graduate student, a postdoctoral researcher, a research scientist and a lecturer. I’ve benefited from supportive mentors, talented colleagues and wonderful friends. I think I’ve accomplished a lot in terms of research, teaching, political advocacy and public outreach. Based on my experience and on anecdotal evidence, the system works well in some ways but is flawed in many others, especially involve the job market and career advancement.

Reflecting on the past fifteen years, here are my current thoughts on problems with the system and ways it could be improved, with a focus on the U.S. and on the physical sciences, though the social sciences and life sciences face similar problems.

1. Let’s be honest: the academic job market is horrible. It was already pretty bad before the recession, and it is worse now. Many scientists move from institution to institution, working on many postdocs, fellowships, and other short-term jobs while seeking permanent positions or more secure funding, but these turn out to be increasingly elusive and competitive. (I worked at three positions over nine years since earning my Ph.D.) I’ve seen some tenure-track faculty positions receive well over 400 applications—I don’t envy the hiring committees there—and I’ve seen some grant proposal success rates drop well below 10%.

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D's are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D’s are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

This system causes people a lot of stress; from a societal perspective, in this situation, how well can people work under such pressure and job insecurity, and how much can they accomplish when they must perennially focus on job applications and grant proposals rather than on the things that drew them to their profession? If the scientific community wants to attract the best scientists, then shouldn’t we strive to make their jobs more desirable than they are now, with better pay and security? As Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote in the Pacific Standard, “unless the nation stops…’burning its intellectual capital’ by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote.” In much the same way, the inadequate job prospects of adjunct faculty renders the possibility of drawing the best teachers and retaining them similarly small.

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

People have been diagnosing these problems for years, but no clear solutions have emerged. In my opinion, the job market situation could be gradually ameliorated if many institutions simultaneously sought to improve it. In particular, I think scientists should have longer-term postdoctoral positions, such as five years rather than one, two or three. I also think faculty should hire fewer graduate students, such as one or two at a time rather than, say, five of them, regardless of how much funding they happen to have at the time.

I also think that colleges, universities, and national labs should allocate funding for more staff positions, though of course that funding has to come from somewhere, and tuition and student debt are already too high. On the other hand, some people argue that university administrations have ballooned too much over the past few decades; others argue that some universities spend too much money on their sports programs. In addition, federal funding for “basic research” (as opposed to applied research) in science should be increased, as such grants often supplement university funding.

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for "sequestration." (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for “sequestration.” (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

2. We can considerably improve the graduate student experience as well. Many university departments and professional societies now give more information about academic career prospects to students than before, and it should be their official policy to do so. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to explore as many of their interests as possible, not just those focused on their narrow field of research. If they want to learn to teach well, or learn about computer programming, software, statistics, policy-making, or the history or philosophy or sociology of their science, or if they want to investigate interdisciplinary connections, or if they want to develop other skills, they should have the time and space to do that. Universities have many excellent resources, and students should have the opportunity to utilize them.

We know that only a fraction of graduate students will continue in academia, and the best scientists will be well-rounded and have a wide range of experience; if they move on to something else, they should be prepared and have the tools and expertise they need.

3. The scientific community can take this an important step further by acknowledging the many roles and variety of activities scientists engage in in addition to research: teaching courses, participating in outreach programs, advancing efforts to improve diversity, becoming involved in political advocacy, developing software and instrumentation that don’t necessarily result in publications, etc. Many scientists agree that we do not sufficiently value these kinds of activities even though they are necessary for the vitality and sustainability of the scientific enterprise itself. For example, in a new paper submitted to the Communicating Astronomy with the Public journal, the authors find that many astronomers think a larger fraction of their grant-funded work (up to 10%) should be allocated to education and public outreach (EPO). EPO are included among the “broader impacts” of National Science Foundation grants, but much more can be done in this regard. All of these activities should be explicitly recognized by the relevant federal agencies during the evaluation of grant proposals and by departmental hiring committees when assessing candidates for jobs and promotions.

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Therefore, a corollary follows: if the community appreciates a wider scope of activities as important components of a scientist’s job, then it is not necessary to relentlessly pursue published research papers all of the time. Perhaps this could alleviate the “publish or perish” problem, in which some scientists rush the publication of insufficiently vetted results or make provocative claims that go far beyond what their analysis actually shows. That is, endeavoring for a more open-minded view of scientists’ work could improve the quality and reliability of scientific research.

In practice, how would this be done? Scientists could organize more conferences and meetings specifically devoted to education research, outreach programs, policy developments, etc., and the proceedings should be published online. Another way a scientist’s peers could be aware of the wider scope of her non-research work would be to have different levels of publication involving them, from informal social media and blog posts to possibly peer-reviewed statements and articles that could be posted on online archives or wiki pages. For example, if she participated in an outreach project with local high school students or in Congressional visit days, she could speak or write about the experience and about what worked well with the program and then publish that presentation or statement.

Furthermore, since research projects can take years and many grueling steps to complete, often by graduate students toiling away in their offices and labs, why not reduce the pressure and recognize the interim work at intermediate stages? Some people are considering publishing a wider scope of research-related work, even including the initial idea phase. A new open-access journal, Research Ideas and Outcomes, aims to do just that. I’m not sure whether it will work, but it’s worth trying, and I hope that scientists will be honorable and cooperative and avoid scooping each other’s ideas.

On that note, as some of you know, I will make it official that I am leaving academic science. (In my next post, I will write about what I am shifting my career toward.) As a result, I will be unable to complete many of my scientific project ideas and papers, and for the few astrophysicist readers of this blog, I will not be annoyed if you run with them (but please give me proper credit). My next four projects probably would have been the following: modeling galaxy catalogs including realistic dynamics within galaxy groups and clusters within dark matter clumps of the “cosmic web”; assessing observational and theoretical problems in the relation between galaxy stellar mass and dark matter halo mass; modeling the mass-morphology relation of galaxies using constraints I previously obtained with the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project; and modeling and analyzing the star formation rate dependence of the spatial distribution of galaxies in the distant cosmic past. I am happy to give more details about any of these ideas.

4. We should also address the problem of academic status inequality. If a person makes it to an elite university or has the opportunity to work with a big-name faculty member or manages to win a prestigious award, grant or fellowship, that is an excellent achievement of which they should be proud. Nevertheless, such a person is essentially endorsed by the establishment and is much more likely to be considered part of an in-crowd, with everyone else struggling in the periphery. In-crowd scientists then often have an easier time obtaining future opportunities, and like an academic capitalism, wealth and capital flow toward this in-crowd at the expense of the periphery scientists. On the one hand, the in-crowd scientists have accomplished something and the community should encourage them to continue their work. On the other hand, scientists are busy people, but they can also be lazy; it’s too easy to give an award to someone who as already received one or to hire someone from another elite institution rather than to assess the merits of the many people with whom they may be less familiar.

According to a recent study in Science Advances, the top ten elite universities produce three times as many future professors as the next ten in the rankings. However, the authors find plenty of evidence that this system does not resemble a meritocracy; in addition, female graduates slip 15% further down the academic hierarchy than men from the same institutions. According to a Slate piece by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset, a co-author of the paper, the findings suggest that upward career mobility in the world of professors is mostly a myth. Many scientists coming from academic outsiders—not from the elite universities—have made important discoveries in the past, but their peers only slowly noticed them. “Thanks to the restrictive nature of the academic system there may be many more innovations that are languishing in obscurity, and they will continue to do so until our universities find a way to apply the principles of diversity they espouse in building student bodies to their hiring practices as well.”

5. As I’ve written before, much more work can be done to improve gender, race, class and other forms of diversity when hiring students, postdocs and faculty and promoting them at universities. Furthermore, when organizing conferences, workshops, meetings and speaker series, diverse committees should explicitly take these principles into consideration. Even the most thorough and attentive committees must also beware of “unconscious bias,” which affects everyone but can be reduced.

6. In a related point, colleges and universities can implement many family-friendly (or more generally, life-friendly) policies to improve and promote work-life balance of academic workers. These include flexible schedules, parental leave, tenure-clock extensions and many others. However, this is not sufficient: scientists who happen to lack the benefits and privileges of white, male, straight people from elite universities seem to have to work that much harder to have a chance of drawing the attention of hiring committees. One should not need to work 100 hours a week to be a successful scientist. Shouldn’t we want more balanced scientists with lives and interests beyond their narrow research field? This means that committees should recognize that sometimes excellent scientists may have fewer yet very high-quality accomplishments and may be under the radar waiting to be “discovered.”

7. The scientific community would also benefit from more opportunities for videoconferencing, in which people remotely present talks and field questions about them. As I’ve written for the American Astronomical Society Sustainability Committee, our biggest source of carbon emissions comes from frequent travel, and we should try to reduce our carbon “footprint.” Moreover, people at small colleges with small travel budgets and people with families who have a harder time traveling would appreciate this, as it would level the playing field a bit. Of course, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, but people continue to improve video tools with Skype, Google and many others, which could be utilized much more extensively.

8. Finally, I argue that everyone would benefit from more and better interactions between scientists, public affairs representatives and government affairs officials at universities. Such interactions would help scientists to present their accomplishments to a wider community, help universities to publicize their scientists’ work, and help political officials to understand the important science being done in their districts, often benefiting from federal and state investment.

These are my current thoughts, and I hope they spark discussions and debates.

Struggling Against Gender Bias in STEM Fields

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

[Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) Status newsletter (p. 15-17). If you quote this article in any way, please cite the version in Status. Many thanks to Nancy Morrison and Joannah Hinz for editing assistance.]

Suppose that two astrophysicists with similar education, experience, and accomplishments—let’s call them Dr. X and Dr. Y—apply for a tenure-track faculty position. If Dr. X is female and Dr. Y is male, and if the selection committee members have conscious or unconscious gender bias, then, unfortunately, one might expect it to be more likely that Dr. Y would be offered the position.

But a controversial and influential new paper argues the opposite. In the title of their April 2015 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, both psychologists and full professors at Cornell University, claim, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.” [1]

The authors base their conclusions on five randomized, controlled experiments at 371 U.S. colleges and universities in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology. In these experiments, tenure-track faculty members evaluated the biographical summaries or the curricula vitae of fictitious faculty candidates—including one “foil” candidate—mostly with impressive qualifications but with different genders and different life situations, such as being a single parent or having taken parental leave.

Their analysis reveals an unexpected result: faculty reviewers strongly preferred female candidates to male ones by a highly significant 2:1 advantage. Williams and Ceci conclude, “Efforts to combat formerly wide-spread sexism in hiring appear to have succeeded. After decades of overt and covert discrimination against women in academic hiring, our results indicate a surprisingly welcoming atmosphere today for female job candidates in STEM disciplines, by faculty of both genders.”

The article received considerable media attention from a variety of outlets. In particular, Nature, The Washington Post, The Economist, and Inside Higher Ed reviewed the article without much skepticism. Presumably, the authors’ claim that sexism no longer exists and gender bias is a thing of the past is a message that many people want to hear. On 31 October 2014, Williams and Ceci published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” in which they presented a shorter version of the same argument. [2]

On the other hand, Lisa Grossman in New Scientist [3] and Matthew Francis in Slate [4] analyzed the study in more detail and expressed more criticism. Both authors outlined the flaws in the analysis by Williams and Ceci. The experimental evaluations in their study involved only reviews of candidates’ biographies, without all the other activities that normally enter into faculty hiring and that may be affected by gender bias: personal interviews, presentation of talks, social events with potential colleagues, and determination of a short list by a selection committee. These simplified experiments do not accurately represent a real hiring process.

Many other studies and and a wealth of anecdotal evidence contradict the conclusions of Williams and Ceci. For example, Viviane Callier, Ph. D., contractor at the National Cancer Institute, told us [5] that recent surveys [6,7] found evidence of pervasive sexism in letters of recommendation—a domain in which the assumption of a level playing field does not apply and which is out of the woman applicant’s control. Moreover, faculty hiring is dominated by graduates of a few prestigious institutions and labs that are disproportionately headed by men, who are more likely to hire other men. “To imply, like Williams and Ceci, that ‘we are done,’ or that ‘the problem is solved,’ does a great disservice to the scientific community,” Callier said.

In any case, analysts agree that the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is an ongoing problem. According to a National Science Foundation study in 2008, 31% of full-time science and engineering faculty are women. This fraction varies among different fields, however. In an American Institute of Physics survey [8], the representation of women among physics faculty members reached 14% in 2010, and for astronomy-only departments, it was 19%. Similarly, a 2013 CSWA survey of gender demographics [10] found that 23% of faculty at universities and national research centers are women. These fractions demonstrate improvement in recent decades, but clearly much more work needs to be done.

Furthermore, although women outnumber men among college and university graduates, men continue to dominate the physical sciences, math, and engineering. At higher levels of academic careers, the gender demographics worsen, in what is often described as a “leaky pipeline.” Women constitute only one third of astronomy graduate students and less than 30% of astronomy postdoctoral researchers. In addition to the underrepresentation of women, gender inequality persists in other areas as well: according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research [9], although women now pursue graduate degrees at the same levels as men, women with such degrees earn no more than 70% of their male colleagues, a larger divide than the overall pay gap.

“Unconscious bias” against women in science and math is not unique to men. In a 2012 PNAS study [11], Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and her Yale University colleagues found that female faculty are just as biased as men against female scientists. When people assess students, hire postdocs, award fellowships, and hire and promote faculty, biases propagate through the pipeline. Contrary to the conclusions of Williams and Ceci, the problem is on both the supply side and the demand side.

What can be done to address such biases? As difficult as it may be, if scientists simply acknowledge that we all carry some inner biases, those biases may be reduced. Meg Urry argued in the January 2014 issue of Status [12] that people who are aware of bias tend be more careful about how they make hiring decisions. In addition, increasing the fraction of women in hiring pools and in search committees helps to reduce unconscious bias as well.

Some institutions have National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE Programs to increase the representation and advancement of women in STEM careers. The University of Michigan’s program [13], for example, includes efforts to develop equitable faculty recruitment practices, increase the retention of valued faculty, improve the departmental climate and work environment, and develop encouraging leadership skills of faculty, staff and students. Their program could be emulated at other institutions.

Finally, other important issues relate to gender bias and underrepresentation of women, including improving maternal and paternal leave policies, increasing access to child care, developing dual-career policies, promoting work-life balance, and reducing gender inequality of housework. Furthermore, other forms of underrepresentation are also important, and workers in STEM fields continue to strive to improve diversity in race, class, and sexual orientation, as well as gender.

References Cited
[1] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2015, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track,” PNAS, 112, 5360n
[2] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2014 October 31, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” New York Times
[3] Grossman, L. 2015 April 17, “Claiming sexism in science is over is just wishful thinking,”
New Scientist
[4] Francis, M. R. 2015 April 20, “A Surprisingly Welcome Atmosphere,” Slate
[5] Callier, V. 2015, personal communication by email
[6] McNutt, M. 2015, “Give women an even chance,” Science, 348, 611
[7] Madera, J. M., Hebl, M. R., and Martin, R. C. 2009, “Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1591
[8] Ivie, R., White, S., Garrett, A., & Anderson, G. 2013, “Women Among Physics & Astronomy Faculty: Results from the 2010 Survey of Physics Degree-Granting Departments,” American Institute of Physics
[9] Institute for Women’s Policy Research 2015, “The Status of Women in the States: 2015 Employment and Earnings”
[10] Hughes, A. M. 2014 January, “The 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey: Portrait of a Generation of Women in Astronomy,” Status, p. 1
[11] Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoli, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. 2012, “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students,” PNAS, 109, 16474
[12] Urry, C. M. 2014 January, “Why We Resist Unconscious Bias,” Status, p. 10
[13] University of Michigan, ADVANCE Program

One Man’s Perspective on Diversity and Inequality in Science

[This blog was originally posted at the Women in Astronomy blog. Thanks to Jessica Kirkpatrick for editing assistance.]

It’s obvious, but one thing I’ve noticed over my career so far is that many departments, institutions, conferences, organizations, committees, high-profile publications, big research grants, etc., both nationally and internationally, and especially leadership positions, are filled with straight, white, men. There are notable and impressive exceptions, but the trend is clear. The distributions of people in the scientific workforce clearly don’t reflect their distribution in the overall population. For example, according to the AAS’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and 30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose 25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to 15%) of tenured faculty. This is not explained by historical differences in gender: if women were promoted and retained at rates comparable to men, then the fractions advancing to higher career stages should be equal. The demographics in terms of race aren’t good either: according to the American Institute of Physics, African Americans and Hispanics combined account for only 5% of physics faculty.

Of course, this isn’t news to readers of this blog. And the disturbing lack of diversity doesn’t just affect us in astronomy and astrophysics or even just in the physical sciences. For example, as you’ve probably seen, the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley has deservedly been in the news lately. Tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have all been criticized for being dominated by white men (and recently, also Asian men). We definitely need to work more at improving diversity in all STEM fields.

I’m a half-white half-Iranian man in astronomy and astrophysics. Everything is competitive these days, but in my opinion, if I’m applying for a job or a grant, for example, and if a black or Latino person or a woman with the same experience and qualifications as me has also applied, I think she should probably get it. While the grant and job markets in STEM fields are very competitive, I think we should look at the big picture, in which we need to strive for more equality in our universities and institutions. It’s also important to keep in mind that both men and women leave academia (though at different rates) and find important and fulfilling careers elsewhere.

I’d also like to point out that, in Iran, STEM fields are not seen as “male” subjects as much as they are in the US and they therefore have almost gender parity in these fields. For example, 70% of Iranian science and engineering students are women and when I last visited Tehran, I met many brilliant female Iranian physics students who could speak about science in both Farsi and English. And in recent news, Maryam Mirzakhani recently became the first woman to win the Fields Medal mathematics prize, and Azeen Ghorayshi won the Clark/Payne award for science journalists. (She recently wrote a story for Newsweek about smog in Tehran, which keeps getting worse.)

In any case, we all benefit—and science benefits—when we have a diverse community. A more diverse workforce, including among leadership positions, helps to produce new ideas and perspectives and to guard against bias. In business, when there is more diversity, everyone profits.

Speaking of bias, how can we deal with “unconscious bias”? In practice, two applicants are never identical, so we have to assess people on a case-by-case basis. It turns out that both men and women surprisingly have similar biases against women in STEM fields, though the biases can be reduced when people are more aware of them and when diverse committees make decisions about hiring and leadership decisions. In addition, diversity and racial equity should be considered at both the initial and shortlist stages of admissions and hiring, and the academic tenure system should be more flexible.

On the issue of leadership and mentorship, I’ve had female and male bosses and mentors and I’ve advised male and female students; in addition, I’ve worked with and for people from many different countries and backgrounds. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t made a difference for me, and I’ve seen a greater variety of management and collaboration styles among men and women than differences between them (though I’ve seen more overconfident men than women). Unfortunately though, some people still do view female leaders differently and hold them to different standards than male leaders.

So what can we do? Many people who are trying to improve this situation are doing excellent work on public outreach and educational programs especially with the purpose of reaching and encouraging girls, minorities, and underprivileged youth. It’s not hard to find such programs everywhere: for example, I recently participated in the Adler Planetarium Astrojournalists program and in a physics outreach program at UCSD with Intertribal Youth organized by Adam Burgasser. The success of such programs, as well as the growing numbers of role models, help to gradually changing cultural stereotypes and reducing biases. For those of us at research institutions, work on outreach and communication should be valued as much as research achievements when hiring and tenure decisions are made. One way to do this would be to explicitly state this in job advertisements and to hiring and tenure committees at our own institutions. It would require more work from such committees, but that’s a small price to pay.

The literature on “confidence gap” issues has been growing rapidly, encouraging women to “lean in” and be more confident and self-assured at work. This is important, but it amounts to encouraging women to behave more like men. We can’t neglect persistent structural and institutionalized barriers and we can’t forget that gender and race inequality is everywhere or that men and white people are benefit from their privileges. (And although class is a separate issue, it’s worth pointing out that there is also a lack of class diversity within higher education and graduate programs. According to the US Census Bureau, the income discrepancy between the working class and the professional class with higher academic degrees is growing, so this problem is getting worse.)

Increasing gender and race diversity is an important goal and an ongoing struggle, but it’s also a means to an end. I believe that we need to set our sights higher than merely having a few more white women and people of color among faculty members. We need *paid* maternity leave, universal or child-care options, better dual-career policies, and paternity leave should be expected. We shouldn’t praise men who continue working full-time rather than spending time with their new children, and we still have a long way to go until men share housework equally with women. Work-life balance issues affect everyone, including single people and those without children. We can advocate for new policies at our own institutions, and city- or state-wide or even national policies would make a huge difference. As a potential step in that direction, even Congress is aware of these issues: in the America COMPETES Act (which funds STEM R&D, education, and innovation) reauthorization it’s now directing the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) develop and implement guidelines for policies that encourage work-life balance, workplace flexibility, and family-responsiveness. In any case, we’re gradually making progress, but much more work remains to be done.

Thoughts on the Academic Job Market in the Physical Sciences

I decided to add “Thoughts on…” at the beginning of the title to emphasize that, although I’ll present some facts, I’ll be expressing my personal opinions on the academic job market. These are my “2 cents”, and some people may disagree with them. And though there are some similar issues and concerns in the social sciences and humanities, most of my experience comes from the physical sciences, especially physics and astronomy, and I’ll focus on that. If you don’t have the time to read the whole post, my main (and obvious) point is this: for a number of reasons, the job market has been getting worse over the past decade or more, with detrimental effects to scientific research and education (and to scientists, educators, and students). This is just a brief intro to the issues involved, and I’m not sure what the best solutions might look like, but I’ll try to write about that more in another post.

Soft Money

For people with Ph.D.’s, in the past, they’d decide upon earning their degree (or earlier) whether to proceed with the “traditional” academic career or shift to another kind of career. Those who continue would consider moving to a tenure-track faculty or other long-term position at a college, university, or other institution. With the growth of “soft money, a euphemism for uncertain funding from external federal (e.g., National Science Foundation) or occasionally private sources, short-term postdoctoral positions and fellowships have proliferated. For various reasons, soft money has become a very important part of the funding landscape (see this article in Science in 2000 and this more recent article).

One consequence of this is that most people in astrophysics now need to work at two or three or even more postdoc/fellowship positions before potentially having a shot at a long-term or more secure position. In my case, I’ve already done two postdocs myself, at the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Heidelberg and at the University of Arizona, and now I’m a research scientist at UC San Diego and this and my previous position were funded by soft money. The job market for the tenure-track faculty positions has become increasingly worse, and it has worsened with the financial crisis. Note that there are other career options as well, such as those associated with particular projects or programs.

Another consequence is that every couple years people need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort applying for the next round of jobs. In addition, people spend a lot of time writing and submitting research grants—to try to obtain more soft money. As a result, grant acceptance rates are now very low (sometimes less than 10%) and senior positions are very competitive. All of these applications also take time away from research, outreach, and other activities, so one could argue that a lot of scientists’ time is thereby wasted in the current system.

Moreover, this system perpetuates inequalities in science, which I’ll describe more below. It also reinforces a workforce imbalance (as pointed out in this article by Casadevall & Fang) where the senior people are mostly well-known males and the larger number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy are more diverse. In addition, although it can be fun to travel and live in different places, for people in couples or with families, it becomes difficult to sustain an academic career. (See these posts for more on diversity and work-life balance issues.)

The Adjunct Crisis

The job market and economic situation at US colleges and universities has spawned the “adjunct crisis” in teaching and education. Much has been written about this subject—though maybe not enough, as it’s still a major problem. (There’s even a blog called “The Adjunct Crisis.”) The number and fraction of adjunctions continues to grow: the NY Times reported last year that 76% (and rising) of US university faculty are adjunct professors.

The problem is that adjuncts are like second-class faculty. Employers are able to exploit the “reserve army of labor” and create potentially temporary positions, but now adjuncts are relied upon much more heavily than before to serve as the majority of college instructors. According to this opinion piece on Al-Jazeera, most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some adjuncts even depend on food stamps to get by. The plight of adjuncts received more media attention when Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct who taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, died broke and nearly homeless. Adjuncts clearly need better working conditions, rights, and a living wage.

Inequalities in Science

As I mentioned above, the current job market situation reinforces and exacerbates inequalities in science. The current issue of Science magazine has a special section on the “science of inequality,” which includes this very relevant article. The author writes that one source of inequality is what Robert Merton called the “Matthew effect,” such that the rich get richer: well-known scientists receive disproportionately greater recognition and rewards than lesser-known scientists for comparable contributions. As a result, a talented few can parlay early successes into resources for future successes, accumulating advantages over time. (If you’re interested, Robert Merton was a sociologist of science whose work is relevant to this post.) From the other side of things, we’re all busy, and it’s easy to hire, cite the work of, award funding to, etc. people who know are successful scientists, even though many lesser known scientists may be able to accomplish the same thing with that grant or position or may have published equally important work; but then more time needs to be spent to research all of the lesser known people, who can publish and still perish.

The author, Yu Xie, also points out that the inequality in academics’ salaries has intensified, some academic labor is being outsourced, and one can be effected down the road by one’s location in global collaborative networks. If one does not obtain a degree at a top-tier university, then this can be detrimental in the future regardless of how impressive one’s work and accomplishments are. We can attempt to get around this last point by spending the time to recognize those who aren’t the most well-known in a field or at the most well-known institutions but who have considerable achievements and produced important work.

“Love What You Do”

Finally, I’ll end by talking about the “Do what you love. Love what you do” (DWYL) nonsense. While this seems like good advice, since it’s great to try to follow your passions if you can, nonetheless it’s both elitist and denigrates work. (I recommend checking out this recent article in Jacobin magazine.) People are encouraged to identify with the work that they love, even if the working conditions and job insecurity shouldn’t be tolerated. The author argues that there are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. The DWYL ideology hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time. These are things that every worker, including workers in academia, deserve.

Diversity in Science

Diversity in science and diversity in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in general are important issues, and I’d like to write more about them. This post is related to my previous post, in which I discussed work-life balance issues. I’ll only review some of the relevant issues here, and I plan to follow up and write more about them in later posts. On diversity in astronomy and astrophysics, I recommend checking out the Women in Astronomy blog, the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), and the STEM Women blog. I focus on the situation in the United States here, but these are issues that people are seeking to address internationally, though the specific situation and possible solutions vary among different countries. (For statistics on members of the International Astronomical Union, see this paper.)

By diversity, I mean the distributions of people in the scientific workforce, including graduate students, postdocs, and tenure-track and tenured faculty as a function of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation don’t reflect their distribution in the overall population. In other words, the disproportionate majority of the scientific workforce is composed of white men. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to STEM fields; we also see a lack of diversity in the media, law, among policy-makers, the tech industry, corporate boardrooms, etc. I will take it as given that diversity is an important goal: it’s important for equality, and everyone benefits when work environments are more diverse.


To give some specific numbers, according to the CSWA nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and ~30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose ~25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to ~15%) of tenured faculty. The female participation rate drops as you look up the “ladder”. Unfortunately, the situation is worse in non-astronomy physics, engineering, and math. For example, only 18% of physics Ph.D.s are women. Among the physical sciences, biology is doing the best on gender diversity. The following figure (taken from this Scientific American article) shows the breakdown among these sciences.


While I’m focusing on gender in this post, the lack of diversity by race and ethnicity is also a major problem. Fewer than 3% of US citizens receiving Ph.D’s are African-American and Hispanic, though together they represent more than a quarter of the US population. Clearly much more work needs to be done to rectify this situation and improve racial diversity. People are working on the whole “pipeline”, from elementary school students to people holding faculty and other senior positions. I should also make the obvious point that there generally appears to be a lack of class diversity as well within higher education and graduate programs. In addition, according to the US Census Bureau, the income discrepancy between the working class and the professional class with the higher academic degrees is growing.

These are not encouraging numbers, but at least they are an improvement over the situation a decade ago and much better than two decades ago. Nonetheless, the rate of improvement is very slow, and the problem will be not be solved simply by waiting for the pipeline to flow (i.e., the senior people retire and the more diverse lower ranks are gradually promoted). Even if overt sexism and racism did not exist at all in departments and hiring decisions, some inequality would persist in STEM fields. Many people are asking what is causing this and what can be done about it.

These are issues with which physical scientists could benefit from the research and input of social scientists. For example, consider these articles by Aanerud et al. (2007) and Timmers et al. (2010), which I found from a quick search of the literature. Aanerud et al. argue that in order to understand women’s tenure status, we should widen our lens and consider the role of labor market alternatives to academic careers; consequently, “we must be cautious about women’s favorable tenure ratio in fields with interpreting gender strong alternatives to academic tenure as indicating academic gender equity.” (In other words, in physics and astronomy we may not necessarily want to emulate the policies used in more diverse fields.) Timmers et al. argue that “Three sets of factors explain women’s low shares at higher job levels, notably individual, cultural, and structural or institutional perspectives, and policies to increase the proportion of women therefore should address these factors.” Policy measures that address the cultural perspective (such as expressing responsibility for applying a gender equality policy at department levels and women in selection committees) and structural perspective (such as accounting for the recruitment of women, adapting job advertisements, and bonuses for hiring women) appear to work effectively in combination.

Also, sociology professor Crystal Fleming has a well-written blog post on privilege and the importance of resilience in the face of rejection and failure while working in academia. This is important because scientists and academics, but more female than male ones, are affected by “imposter syndrome.” (Personally, I can tell you that I’ve had to work hard applying for numerous positions, fellowships, research grants, etc., and it’s difficult to be rejected by the vast majority of them.) As one more example, Adam Burgasser, a faculty in my department at UCSD, has worked with social scientists recently to better recruit and retain diverse graduate students. They’ve found that it’s important to follow-through and continue mentoring students through their graduate career.

What other kinds of things are being done or can be done to improve the situation? It’s important to encourage and mentor undergrads, grad students, and postdocs, and also to talk to them about alternative career paths outside academia, as there are many possible careers for scientists. As important, it’s good to reach girls and boys in primary and secondary school about science, and it’s important to try to reduce currently prevalent cultural stereotypes. For example, when many people think of typical scientists, they imagine a nerdy white man (such as in the TV show “Big Bang Theory”) in a lab coat. There are many ways to encourage girls’ interest in science, though some ways may be more effective than others (see this Slate article, for example). Members of university departments and other organizations have developed a wide range of outreach programs targeting girls and children of color, including numerous programs at UC San Diego that bring secondary school students and underprivileged youth to UCSD for interactive demonstrations, labs, lectures, and other activities aimed at enhancing their interest in science.

There are other cultural issues to deal with as well. For example, some people have stereotypes about their own bosses, but women are great leaders (maybe better than men) and people’s views about female bosses vis-à-vis male bosses are improving in some ways. It’s also difficult for people of color; an African American leader who appear authoritative or offers criticism of particular policies, for example, can be stereotyped as an “angry black man” or “angry black woman.” Whites and males should be more aware of gender and race privilege, and this is something that should be more frequently and openly discussed. (See this excellent blog post by Caitlin Casey.) In addition, some people, inadvertently or not, might act in a sexist or racist manner at work, and this should be challenged and called out. And we have to be very careful about “unconscious bias”: for example, both men and women surprisingly have the same biases against women in male-dominated fields, though the biases are reduced when people are aware of them and when diverse committees make decisions about hiring and leadership decisions (see this article by Meg Urry).

It seems like the literature on “confidence gap” issues has been growing rapidly, encouraging women to “lean in” and be more confident and self-assured at work. All of this is great and important. In my opinion, however, it’s also potentially misleading. We can’t neglect persistent structural problems, power relations, pernicious cultural frames, and we can’t forget gender and race inequality.

Increasing diversity is an important goal, but it’s also a means to an end. In my opinion, we need to set our sights higher than merely having a few more women and people of color among faculty members. We need *paid* maternity leave, universal or child-care options, better dual-career policies, and paternal leave should be expected. There should be no benefit for men who continue working full-time rather than spending time with their new children, and we still have a long way to go until men share housework equally with women. This is related to work-life balance issues, which are definitely not a “women’s problem”. (See also these NY Times articles continuing the struggle for gender equality.) We’re gradually making progress, but much more work remains to be done.

Some thoughts on “work-life balance”

Since my partner and I are about to go on vacation and I’m therefore about to go on a break from work, this will be my last blog until mid-January. I figured that this might be a good occasion to talk a bit about what some people call the “work-life balance.” I’ll try to make my comments general, but note that my perspective is that of a man, a scientist, and an academic in the US, which may be very different than others’ perspectives. One major difference of jobs in academia is that they tend have more flexible schedules but less security than other jobs. (For more discussion of these issues, I suggest looking at the Women in Astronomy blog and the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women.)

I think the main point I want to make here is that work-life balance issues and issues of equality and diversity are closely related, and issues of fair working conditions and job security are related as well but are discussed less often in this context.

One thing is clear: both women and men want to “have it all”, though what “all” refers to is different for different people. In addition, there has been much debate and discussion recently in news media, such as these articles in The Guardian and The Atlantic, of the fact that men also want a balance between work and life, which often refers to men taking a larger role than before at home with their families.  It’s interesting that this is considered noteworthy, but it’s good that changes toward equality are happening even if they’re a bit late.


When both men and women seek balances between work and life, this also should result in more equal career and employment opportunities for women and therefore more women in leadership positions than there have been in the past.  For example, when both men and women take parental leave, it is less likely to hurt them in terms of their long-term career advancement.  It is increasingly becoming understood and expected by co-workers and employers that both men and women take leave, though some employers (and universities) have better policies for this than others.  Many countries require paid paternity leave, but the US is not one of them.

I also want to point out that discussions of these issues often seem to occur about people with children, though of course people without kids want work-life balance too.  Work and careers are important for many people, but some people only notice a work-life tension when they have kids, partly because kids take a lot of time but also because some people’s lives are primarily focused on their work. This isn’t really a criticism (after all, many great scientists and artists have been passionately focused only on their work), but it’s worth noting that “workaholic” attitudes are common but are especially prevalent in the US, to some people’s detriment. In addition, when there is a lot of competition for jobs and job security is hard to find, there is more pressure to work harder and longer hours at the expense of other important things. In any case, every person has different goals and priorities, but jobs and employer policies should be flexible enough to accommodate that. A work-life balance is important for one’s mental and physical health and happiness and for the health of families and communities, though of course different people will have different ways for attempting to achieve such a balance.

Finally, to lighten things up, let’s end with an Onion article.