Thoughts on Virginia Postrel’s Post on “How to Get More Female Scientists”

24 Feb

Virginia Postrel has three excellent blog posts today covering Larry Summers and other stuff (here, here, and here). I generally agree with everything she’s said, but I wanted comment on the middle blog post that covers "How to Get More Female Scientists". As a person with a professorial wife and as a person that does nitty-gritty consulting with regard to pipeline operations (consulting that looks to optimize the relationships of metrics, people, jobs, workflow, throughput, quality, organizational structure, control structure, goals, systems, and culture), I really zeroed in on Virginia’s following text:

"So, if a university like Harvard wants to foster the careers of female
scientists, this is my advice: Speed up the training process so people
get their first professorial jobs as early as possible–ideally, by 25
or 26. Accelerate undergraduate and graduate education; summer breaks
are great for students who want to travel or take professional
internships, but maybe science students should spend them in school.
Penalize senior researchers whose grad students take forever to finish
their Ph.D.s. Spend more of those huge endowments on reducing (or
eliminating) teaching assistant loads and other distractions from a
grad student’s own research and training. If you want more female
scientists, ceteris paribus (as the economists say), stop extending academic adolescence."

Her closing comment "stop extending academic adolescence" is beautiful, but I would go further to say that universities should go even further to "stop creating academic obsolesence". The clocks don’t stop at the Ph.D. level. Getting tenure after becoming a professor means performing quality research (and sometimes also performing quality classroom teaching depending on the institution). Things like grading take up an extraordinary time and provide little if any benefit to either the professor or the students. There should be additional focus on actively monitoring, mentoring, and helping females through the academic process as opposed to having university adminstration passively check in on candidates.

Where I may differ from Virginia a little bit on specifics (although she probably was just blue sky thinking like I am doing now) is that I would focus more on acceleration of the graduate school part of the process (i.e., post bachelors degree through tenured professor) as opposed to the undergraduate part. Just my gut feel there. Although I hated undergraduate education more than graduate school, part of it has to do with that I wasn’t "educated" enough in a worldly sense back then to know the value and risks of shortening that timeframe.

As for Viriginia’s comment, "Penalize senior researchers whose grad students take forever to finish
their Ph.D.s.", I could get on board with that. But that’s a tough one to implement based on what little I know about the different flavors of university cultures and plethora of organizational processes.

Two other closing items I wanted to mention because it sheds light on both the pressure on females and the pressure of reasearch on both sexes in this whole process:

  • A number of female Ph.D. students I know have told one another that "the time to have kids is during the process before getting a Ph.D." Otherwise, you may be dead or childless unintentionally.
  • There was once a researcher who said something to the effect of "I have to think about research all of the time (even when I am not doing it) to be able to make it through the academic process. The only time I am not thinking about research is when I am swimming because I fear I will drown."

Steve Shu
Managing Director, S4 Management Group

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Virginia Postrel’s Post on “How to Get More Female Scientists”

  1. How to Get More Female Scientists Cont’d

    The Glittering Eye makes a fairly obvious point, but one I missed: “There aren’t that many jobs for hard scientists these days (except medical-related) and scientists who have jobs are holding onto them for dear life葉here’s less room for younger…

  2. Are you talking about getting more female academic scientists? There were plenty of female scientists when I was in graduate school. Granted there were more in biology, fewer in Chemistry (especially physical), and fewest of all in Physics. But there were a lot more female grad students that one wold expect by looking at the number of female junior faculty. Most females in my cohort went into industry – better pay, less politics, but most especially, better work / life balance.
    It might be possible to penalize profs who keep their well-trianed senior students around too long, but that relationship sometimes benefits both parties. The tenure in graduate school has increased steadily since the 60’s, when 3 – 4 years was the norm. Now Organikers can get by sometimes with 4 years today, but in the more physical disciplines 5- 6 years is now the norm (my Ph.D. is in P-Chem, as is my wife’s). Shortening this process is not going to be easy because of several factors. One factor is that the number of papers expected from a newly minted Ph.D.’s thesis work has grown, and shrinking the graduate study time will reduce the number of papers one can publish before graduation. Unless expectations change, a faster Ph.D. will be a less competitive one.
    Another factor is that many graduate school hours are spent on non-thesis work such as asssiting with grant applications. In today’s cut-throat academic world, that is good, but time consuming, training.
    To me the big time waster is at the Post-Doc stage. It is becoming more common for aspiring professors to boast two Post-Docs on their CV either to compete with a more complete CV or because the job market was so lousy a second Post-Doc was better than flipping burgers. In additon, a huge flood of highly qualified Eastern European and Chinese Ph.D.s has depressed the wages for academic Post-Docs, making the second phase of servitude almost as pitiful as the first, graduate student phase.
    Both my wife and I got the heck out of the academic rat race, and I left science altogether to get a degree in Marketing. We are both still scientists, and will be until we die, we just don’t practice science anymore. I’d say that, on average, our peers who went into industry were better scientists than our peers who went the academic route; the academics just had a greater tolerance for poltics at the funding agencies and within the University.

  3. John,
    Thanks for the comments. Let me try to establish some footing here. On the one hand, I will say that my impression when comparing the corporate world to the academic world is that the “process” of getting graduate students, putting them through the training, getting them jobs, and then working them through the tenure process strikes me as having a pretty wide variance in terms of how processes are implemented. Additionally the process makeup varies across colleges within the universities. In some ways, the “scientist construction process” is more mysterious to me than the pledging process for fraternities and sororities in a university. Politics seem stronger to me in academia, and organizational structures within the universities seem more diverse than I think I find in corporations I’ve worked with. Methinks it makes for not only an arduous environment for PhD candidates and tenure track professors but also an adverse environment.
    That as backdrop, if one wants to take any “actions” or perform any “assessments” of how well the process is working and if any improvements can be made (whether in terms of increasing throughput, making things less adverse, improving yield), such an approach will need to be done on a case-by-case basis. At the high-level, I group initial thinking along these lines:
    – process for inflow (e.g., getting more female students)
    – scope of process being improved (e.g., getting more females through the process of bachelors to PhD or bachelors through tenure)
    – process for outflow (both degreed and non-degreed flows).
    In my blue sky thinking I was focusing mostly on the second point only. On average, it strikes me as the most complex process and as a process that could use the most improvement within the graduate school microflow. Additionally, my perspective is from engineering and business disciplines – not the science areas), so I was probably using the term “scientist” to apply to those that follow through to become academics and professors (not those that go to industry). In engineering and business, I think there are fewer “scientists” that are found in the industry.
    I hadn’t really thought about the Post-doc piece. That type of degree strikes me as more prevalent in the sciences again as compared to make or breakers for scientists in engineering and business.
    I guess where I’m at is that my gut feel is that the academic path for becoming a tenured professor is sigificantly more adverse for females. And I’m generally not a subscriber to the belief that innovation and excellence only comes out of having high pressure and a one-size-fits all process. There are other ways to create excellence.
    Anyway, if one buys into the idea that the flow for creating more female scientists could be improved (at least for some areas), I think that people can put their heads together to figure out how to make the process better of getting candidates through while still maintaining quality.

  4. I didn’t mean to imply that I disagreed completely with your proposal, I just wanted to point out that there are some pros for the process as it stands. I also wanted to point out that adding to the burden of competitiveness is an influx of Kandidat degrees from Eastern Europe (Chinese grad students tended to have a Master’s from China, but not a Ph.D.-equivalent such as a Kandidat when I was in school).
    Engineering is another ballgame entirely, the dynamics are completely different. Scientists really do need a Ph.D. to lead research teams (with a few exceptions), engineers do not. But there are plenty of Ph.D. scientists in industry: biotech, instrumentation and pharmaceuticals being the largest sectors of employment. Government agencies such as NIST, NIH, the DOE and the DoD are other big employment sectors for non-academic Ph.D. researchers.
    You are correct in that the process has a lot of variability, but in my experience time spent does have a loose correlation to quality within one or two sigma from the mean (too far from the mean may indicate a weak student taking too much time) – professors who demand more tend to keep students longer, but those students are more able to compete.
    EU Ph.D.s tend more towards the 3-4 year timeframe, but they do not participate in grant writing, and may need more Post-Doc experience to compete in the US with someone who came from my lab, for example. I spent a lot of time writing progress reports and grant applications for my professor my last 3 years in grad school. Another difference between the EU and US is that a professor in the US buys most of his own equipment and maintains it with grad student labor. There are no departmental technical workers to maintain equipment and run samples for grad students in the US. EU Ph.D.s may have some to no experience actually handling and fixing their instruments. I spent countless hours maintaining equipment, sweating copper pipe for cooling systems, changing ion exchange columns in water purifiers, etc., etc. This is one area where a little help might save time – I know my wife spent hours fiddling with her lasers.
    However, even with the shorter time spent in the EU for a Ph.D., I’m not sure they have more women in junior faculty positions than in the US. The same Post-Doc / journeyman system applies there.

  5. John,
    I especially like your point “… I just wanted to point out that there are some pros for the process as it stands …”. Couldn’t agree more. I wouldn’t throw out the system. It has some great aspects to it. That said, I wouldn’t try resort to looking for quick fixes either. My sense is that a proactive program for looking at this continually is required. Make some changes. Measure the progress. Make adjustments. Measure the progress. Keep innovating while refining what the goals and real ideals are.
    In the face of this stuff, I do keep coming back to Virginia’s original comment though … “Men postpone child rearing into their 40s with little consequence. Women cannot. That’s a problem for professional women in general, but it’s a much bigger problem for women on a tenure clock. And the later that tenure clock starts, the bigger a problem it is.” My spider-sense (so to speak) tingles on this issue and tells me that there’s got to be substantial improvements that could be made. And “substantial” doesn’t have to mean the same thing to everyone. I would think that many women would find small improvements by our standards to be substantial.

  6. I’ve heard some people suggest bringing back the old D.Sc. degree, which was a shorter Ph.D.-lite. People could then continue on to a full Ph.D. if desired, but it would allow employment before putting a full 6 years in. This is a lot like the Russian Kandidat system: a Kandidat takes 3 years, then after about 10 more years of steady published work, you can apply for a “Doctor” degree. I spent time in the USSR in between grad school and undergrad, and I found the level of Kandidats to be weaker on average than US, Ph.D.s, but the system was set up to do additonal sorting after the initial degree. Our system isn’t exactly set up to do that, but the Post-Doc experience could easily be modified to do that.
    The problem with that would be getting older managers and professors to comprehend what the D.Sc. degree would mean in terms of capability, and that’s no mean feat. When I was in grad school, many of my Russian and Czech friends had Kandidats, but Western Universities would not recognize them, so they wasted time getting a US Ph.D. in order to compete. One Czech friend of mine never went to his quantum class except to take the exams. The guy never missed an exam question. Aside from ruining curve, this accomplished nothing, especially for him. But, by God, the professors at my university were not going to transfer class credits, even from the best university in the Czech Republic.

  7. Your comment:
    Things like grading take up an extraordinary time and provide little if any benefit to either the professor or the students.
    is astounding. I would think actually looking at the work one’s students do should be a pretty important part of the teaching experience. If the objective is to train researchers and only do research, then fair enough. But most universities at least pretend that teaching students is what they are there for. Why is teaching the only thing not actually discussed in this post about how to get more women professors? Perhaps the quickest way to get more women professors is to give more weight to teaching ability for people who, you know, teach.

  8. Bob,
    Great comment. As someone who has spent a great amount of time and money on education, I definitely have my opinions on the importance of teaching. In fact, I am very disappointed by those professors that do not emphasize teaching.
    That said, the grading aspect seems to take an inordinate amount of time compared to what value the students receive. My impression is that when it comes to grading, students care very little about why they received a certain grade in terms of its educational value. They just care about the grade. Compared to the 3-4 fours days of work it take to assign a letter grade for each test (just pulling a number out of the air, but perhaps not too far off), the professor could have spent more time working on how to make the classroom teaching experience better.
    My point was not that I felt that teaching should be de-empahsized. I personally feel teaching is one of the most important things (but not necessarily one that should be valued by grading). My own experience is that the value of teaching comes through the classroom experience and office hours.
    All this said, there are many universities that do not value the imporatance of teaching regardless of what they profess when it come to tenuring a professor. Thus, you and I can both step back and say whether the incentive structure for the professor is that same as the ideal we would like to achieve.

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