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."
Managing Director, S4 Management Group